Our Wartime Duty: Searching for Optimism for the Future

Taking stock of world affairs these days can quickly throw one into a mood of deep pessimism.


One remembers with difficulty the joy and optimism that spread around much of the world little more than a decade ago at, first, the fall of the Soviet Union and its empire, and then the release of Nelson Mandela from his long, unjust imprisonment and the transformation of South Africa from apartheid state to multiracial democracy.


That both events occurred with a minimum of violence seemed to forecast the world was turning a corner as the twentieth century was ending; that we humans were discovering it was possible to get through such transformations peacefully.


But the intervening decade—with its terrible violence in the Balkans and Rwanda, and smaller-scale continuing conflicts in Northern Ireland and the Middle East, to name just two—had, I'm sure, even before September 11th already dimmed that optimism in many of us.


Now, It seems that a fog of violence covers the entire world and colors our every thought.


It's not only that the September 11th attacks have begun a war that, we've been warned, has no geographical or moral boundaries. Although its actual violence has been thus far confined to a few places, that people everywhere, especially here in the United States, are coping with a heightened sense of vulnerability is readily apparent.


And it seems that now, in this region and that region, the use of violence as a route to solve differences threatens the peace not only of local societies, but of the world community itself.


It's as if a virus had first broken out in different places on our body, and now is spreading to overwhelm us completely.


It's difficult for most of us to even begin to know what to do beyond the obvious—take, as the Bush Administration has, the necessary steps to protect America and the world community from the immoral, indiscriminate violence of terrorists.


But it occurred to me that one action we all can take may help: we can arm ourselves with knowledge.


This occurred to me this past Sunday as I was reading some of the reviews of the most recent book by the noted scholar of Islam, Bernard Lewis. Professor emeritus of Near Eastern Studies at Princeton University, Lewis' scholarship and insights about the achievements of Muslim empires, particularly throughout the Middle Ages, have long been widely respected;


But it's been his assertions that Islamic societies and governments (not Muslims as individuals) have willfully and wrongly chosen to turn their backs on modernity that has always, in its turn, provoked sharp criticism from some quarters.


I write this, I fully admit, not having yet read Lewis' just-published book, What Went Wrong: Western Impact and Middle Eastern Response.


But I have long known generally of his views on that point, and the two reviews I read, by Paul Kennedy, professor of history at Yale and a respected internationalist, in the New York Times Book Review, and Robert Irwin, a novelist and expert on the Arab world, in the Washington Post Book World, seemed to present the book's thesis honestly and evaluate it cogently.


They make clear that the book was completed before September 11th—and that that fact underscores the validity of his critique.


Lewis' point, which I can only sketch cursorily here, is that well into the early Middle Ages, Islamic societies performed an immensely important duty: They not only preserved much of the intellectual heritage of the classical world at a time when Europe was mired in backwardness, but made significant advances in philosophy, medicine, mathematics and astronomy.


But then, as Irwin puts it, "a narrowing of intellectual horizons seems to have taken place" and the Muslim societies became "oddly incurious about crucial intellectual and technical developments that were taking place in Christian Europe."


That different reaction down through the centuries to the forces of modernity—to, ultimately, as Kennedy writes, "laissez-faire economics, cultural pluralism, and political democracy"—led to the Muslim world's present in which "a badly damaged though powerful and religiously driven order is locked in confrontation with global trends more penetrating and unsettling" than their predecessors could ever have imagined.


There remains, as there should, a great debate about Lewis' views, which, of course, are not his alone. That debate—which must be joined by those from Islamic societies as well—is worth continuing for many reasons.


One urgent one is that the discussion may offer both societies ways of looking beyond the current violence fomented by those who have distorted Islam's teachings and enable us to reconstruct our journey of mutual respect.

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