August 06, 2002
Historical Forces

The United States is the only major world power whose origin can be traced back to a single date in history. A single date less than eleven generations ago. Think about that for a second. Your grandmother's great-grandmother probably was alive during the Civil War, and her grandmother's great-grandmother would've been old enough to serve beer to Thomas Jefferson outside Constitution hall on a particularly hot July day. As far as nations go, the United States is only relatively new, but as a people, Americans haven't even had time for the shine to wear off. And it's not just America that's relatively new. The way of life characterized as "western" (industrial, urban, information driven) originated at about the same time as the American state, in the mid-18th century.

The lessons you get in history classes don't really emphasize that before about 1500, "the west" (i.e. Europe & England) really wasn't much to write home about. For ten centuries they had done little more than build thick-walled castles on every hilltop they could get their hands on and set each other's peasants on fire. Even when they managed to unite they were at best a force among equals.

For more than a thousand years, a thousand years, the true centers of learning, culture, and refinement in the west weren't in London or Bonn or Paris or Milan, they were in Cairo, Damascus, Baghdad, and Istanbul. For fifty generations if you were a scholar or a scientist or an artisan you headed straight toward the caliphates and kingdoms of the Islamic empires. It certainly beat the hell out of a monastery.

You see, Western Europe wasn’t the direct inheritor of the cultural climax of Rome. Barbarian invasions and a general lack of urbanization caused a collapse of this area so thorough many local peasants believed the marbled columned ruins were built by gods.

The heavily urbanized, and therefore highly literate and well educated, section of the empire was in the East. When the Bedouin exploded out of their wasteland home they conquered an area holding libraries of knowledge ten centuries old. They carried with them a religion and law that emphasized all learning as valuable, and so these libraries were saved, expanded, and eventually bettered in every way. Islam began to be seen by its adherents as a force of history, which was self-evidently better than any other lifeway it encountered. For a thousand years it met, matched, and overcame every obstacle thrown at it, and was better for each challenge.

However, for reasons not entirely clear, something went very, very wrong. The last great Islamic empire, the Ottomans, stood at the gates of Vienna for three months in 1688. If they had broken through those walls Europe would've been open before them, and we all might be chanting "God is Great" today. But they didn't, and this watershed event represented a zenith that would not, and in fact could not, be equaled again. In a little more than one hundred years all the rules of warfare would be changed, and for whatever reason the Muslims never got the new playbook.

So it's important to note that unlike Western Europe, the cultures of Islam have fifty generations of being the paragon of western cultural achievement. This supremacy lasted so long it invaded every part of their culture, became part of the fabric of their existence. Islam ended up being all about looking to the past, because the past was where everything important was.

In the space of just a little more than a hundred years, just two human lifetimes, this entire world order got stood on its head. Europe didn't just field bigger armies, or figure out better tactics. Europeans figured out how to build fighting machines which were literally undefeatable by anything the cultures of Islam could create. Napoleon humiliated the Mamaluks in Egypt at Shubra Khit and Imbabah in 1798, and the world would never be the same.

Because Europe didn't just create new ways of fighting wars, they created new ways of living life, of thinking, of believing. Liberal democracy, capitalism, and material science didn't just make Europe supreme, it made Islam irrelevant. In a little more than a century fully one thousand years of history and achievement simply ceased to matter.

The shock of this is something Arabs are still dealing with. At first Islamic cultures attempted to co-opt western ways, but fully embracing the things that made the west powerful would've required them to repudiate everything they felt made Islamic culture valuable. Europe had nearly four hundred years to come to terms with this brilliant, horrible engine, but they only gave the rest of the world a single generation. And with one single exception (Japan) no pre-existing culture managed it.

Truly, the center did not hold for the Muslim world, and it in fact ended with a whimper. The cold truth is that were it not for the geographic coincidence of petroleum and the logistical convenience of using natives to pull it out of the ground, Islamic culture would have been largely destroyed a hundred and fifty years ago. The Czars of Russia wanted an Orthodox mass spoken in the Hagia Sophia, the church of the Holy Wisdom in the center of Istanbul, and if it weren't for the British there would've been little the Ottomans could've done to stop them.

Islam, especially the Arabic heart of Islam, has simply never come to terms with these events. The native leadership, the ones who "own the Arab street", still wait for Islam to retake its rightful place as the epicenter of the world. They are to this day taught in midrasas from an early age that one day the West will see the light of Islam and all will fall down at their feet. The fact that it keeps not happening is something utterly incomprehensible. And when the human animal is confronted with the failure of an idea loved to the core of its soul, violence is a natural result.

But Islam must come to terms with this. By insisting on refighting a war lost eleven generations ago, by refusing to embrace change, by denying the need for a fundamental restructuring of beliefs, Islam cannot and will not succeed. By using violence as a method of political advancement, by embracing outrageous expressions of destruction as leitmotifs of a belief system, Islam makes itself worse than irrelevant. It makes itself a clear and present danger to people who are rapidly gaining the technological capability of dismantling and destroying it by remote control at no risk to the conquerors.

Because there's a problem with power derived from oil. We're already importing nearly as much oil from the former Soviet republics as we are from Saudi Arabia, and combined with the North Sea and South American fields, Arab oil is very rapidly becoming a convenience instead of a necessity.

All terrorism and fundamentalism does is teach the west to fear Islam. And without the brickbat of embargo to threaten the us with, what, exactly, will we have to fear?

Posted by scott at August 06, 2002 04:07 PM

eMail this entry!

You are talking about a people who had rather die than change their beliefs in anyway. They may soon have the capability of pulling the walls down around all our ears rather than making any type of adjustments. After all, lessons taught for over 1,000 years are very hard to changeand furthermore you have to want to change.

Posted by: Pat on August 6, 2002 10:03 PM

The Islamic tradition is a bloody one, with conquest as its' sole goal for hundreds of years. As a result, the Arab Islamic world is one that thinks in terms of conquest and power. This is at odds with western ways of thinking and Judeo-Christian tradition and that is why it is taking us so long to 'get it' as to how to deal with them. They respect power and force and use them to whatever degree they can. We in the west, and especially America, use them generally as a last resort.

The judicious application of force, as used in Afghanistan and (hopefully soon) in Iraq will do more towards a lasting peaceful co-existance with Muslim nations than any amount of negotiations, treaties and embargos ever will. When they respect us, they will deal with us as equals. Until then, we're cowardly infidels to be mocked and destroyed.

Posted by: wylie in norman on August 8, 2002 10:24 AM

Dealing with the Arab states in this manner is the reason Israel still exists. They learned this lesson well.

Posted by: Pat on August 8, 2002 12:34 PM

excellently well put and nicely balanced - good to know there are people out there who actually know the history of a region - and how it has influenced the rest of the world - a tad further away than the puddle south of Main Street.

Posted by: inkgrrl on August 9, 2002 12:23 AM

Thanks for the comments! :)

Posted by: scott on August 9, 2002 01:52 PM

Damn, that's GOOD!!! Thank you so much for referring me to your article here. I need to read more stuff like this. I think I'm going to link to it on my web site under "things you need to read". Will get your permission first.

Okay now I'm going to go check out the rest of your site!

Posted by: Rachel Lucas on August 11, 2002 03:53 PM

Please feel free to link or quote however you feel appropriate. Thanks for the kind words and welcome to the site :).

Posted by: scott on August 11, 2002 05:36 PM

A terrific article, but you're pessimistic on the timescale. It's not my grandmother's great grandfather that was alive in the Civil War, it's *mine* - and I'm only 38. He was born in 1859. My grandmother was born in 1902 (she was #7), my mother in '34, and I was born in '64

My great-grandfather imigrated here from Ireland in 1860. He was only one year old but his father fought with a Pennsylvania regiment.

History is close by. My Grandmother was born before airplanes flew and saw men land on the. moon.

Posted by: Richard Riley on August 12, 2002 08:26 PM

Yah know, the scary thing is that my great-grandfather's name was Riley. Who knows... :)

Thanks for the comment and welcome to the site!

Posted by: Scott on August 12, 2002 08:37 PM

I hat this new format! Please change it back!

Posted by: Pat on August 24, 2002 03:52 AM
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