Opinion: Islam should seek return to tolerance

July 15, 2013


— Hisham Melhem, a prominent Lebanese journalist, recalls an emotional visit to the Great Mosque of Cordoba in southern Spain last May. With tears in his eyes, he found himself wondering how the Arab Muslim genius of a thousand years ago had veered in modern times toward such chaos and repression.

Melhem later wrote a column for the Beirut daily An Nahar describing his visit to the Andalusia region, “roaming as if ... in a dream,” touching the pillars of the mosque in Cordoba and other magnificent remnants of a Muslim moment “characterized (by) confidence, courage, openness, tolerance and love of intellect, philosophy, arts, architecture and happiness on earth.”

What happened to this sublime culture? That question of lost greatness has vexed Arabs for centuries, and it was painfully visible last week as Egypt lurched forward into a new moment of bloodshed and political turmoil.

Egyptians yearn for the greatness of a past that produced the glorious pyramids and tombs of the pharaohs, and later made Cairo’s al-Azhar mosque the arbiter and guardian of Sunni Muslim theology. What Egyptians find in the present is a revolution that, over the past two years, has been devouring its children, secularist liberals and Muslim Brothers alike.

Talking about this unfolding tragedy in Egypt with my friend Melhem, I thought he was right to focus on the openness and tolerance of the Moorish kings of Andalusia. It was this sophistication that gave Cordoba its reputation as “the ornament of the world.” It wasn’t only Muslims who prospered in 9th-century Andalusia, but Jews and Christians as well.

Melhem contrasts this 9th-century tolerance with the “sectarian cancer” that today is eating Syria, Iraq and so many other Arab nations. He wrote in An Nahar: “Today’s Middle Eastern Muslims, with their narrow sectarian awareness, appear extremely far from the humane sources that under Islam made them the second civilization after the great Romans. They are so far from sources that granted the world a new language in intellect, art and commerce upon a universal vision supposedly based on logic and justice.”

The Cordoban spirit of pluralism was described by Maria Rosa Menocal in her 2003 book, “The Ornament of the World: How Muslims, Jews and Christians Created a Culture of Tolerance in Medieval Spain.” She described how the Arab Muslim rulers of the time promoted a freedom of thought that, in addition to producing great art and the beginnings of modern mathematics and science, also allowed other religions to prosper.

This ethic of tolerance — so central to the zenith of Muslim culture — is precisely what seems missing in so many Arab countries today. The political culture is broken. Politicians on all sides lack the confidence that allows compromise and moderation. Politics is a zero-sum game, and everything is a fight to the death, whether it’s in Cairo, Damascus, Tripoli or Baghdad.

Recent events in Egypt underline the problem: If it’s not the Islamic authoritarianism of the Muslim Brotherhood, it’s the repressive dictatorship of the military. There seems no middle ground.

You can glimpse the beginnings of a movement to build a Muslim political culture of tolerance that could support modern democratic societies. Asef Bayat, an Iranian-born professor at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana, has been writing over the last decade about what he calls “post-Islamist” trends. He argued his case forcefully in a 2007 book called “Making Islam Democratic.”

A Lebanese Muslim friend explained in a recent email that the guiding insight of this post-Islamist movement is that “bringing Islam down to the muck of daily life and its politics has proved extremely dangerous to the religion. ... In order to save Islam, you have to elevate it again and protect it from the humanity that wheels and deals in its name.”

Arguing for tolerance and moderation at a time when Egyptians and Syrians are slaughtering each other may seem like folly, but it’s grounded in a practical reality. To rediscover the golden age symbolized by “Al-Andalus,” the Arab Muslim world must recapture the inclusive spirit that sustained Cordoba and Granada. Otherwise, the broken political culture will not mend.

— David Ignatius is a columnist for Washington Post Writers Group.


Abdu Omar 4 years, 11 months ago

David, you are right, but you miss the point. One that you will not accept. Before the "Jewish" state of Israel became de facto, Muslims, Jews and Christians lived together in abject harmony. They still do in Tunis, Sfax and other places in Tunisia and other parts of the world. But because we want a place for one at the exclusion of the other, we have mistrust, greed, and, consequently, war!

The war in the Middle East is because the West, the great destroyer, has determined that the leadership of each state be governed by kings, dictators and president who are dictators. The people hate dictatorships so they overthrow them in a bloody, long and divisive war.

jhawkinsf 4 years, 11 months ago

I wonder, wounded, when you say Jews, Christians and Muslims lived in harmony prior to the state of Israel, if your opinions are forms from a perspective of one side. In other words, if I asked Jews and Christians about the harmony they were supposedly living in, would they have a different perspective, and therefore, a different opinion.

Or to give you an example, Thomas Jefferson might have thought he was treating his slaves very well. And compared to other slave owners, that's probably true. But if I asked the slaves themselves, might they come to a different conclusion than our good Mr. Jefferson?

jafs 4 years, 11 months ago

As far as I know, it was a very harmonious time for all of the groups.

But, you could do some research, and get back to us on that.

jhawkinsf 4 years, 11 months ago

I heard a joke a number of years ago, it went like this. The Iranian revolution set that country back a hundred years, putting them in the eleventh century.

O.K., maybe it's not so funny, but it does highlight a specific point. What Islam needs is a good reformation, something to bring it into the 21st. century. Many countries, especially those in the West look at many of Muslim dominated countries throughout the world and see themselves, five hundred years ago.

Ron Holzwarth 4 years, 11 months ago

PM Netanyahu of Israel's Ramadan greeting to Israel's Muslim citizens on youtube.com:
(20% of Israel's citizens are Muslim or Druze.)

Ron Holzwarth 4 years, 11 months ago

"Finally, the Brotherhood should embrace a policy that will comfort the Israelis and the ones who hold it dear to themselves and they should scrupulously avoid things that could raise tensions. They have to end the anti-Israel rhetoric and show their compassion for Jews and Christians, as a requirement of their belief as well."
- Sinem Tezyapar, a Muslim Facebook friend in Istanbul, Turkey

From 'Part two: A test of democracy for Egypt or a test of democracy for the west?'
clipped from ' Daily News Egypt: Egypt’s Only Daily Independent Newspaper In English'

Hudson Luce 4 years, 11 months ago

Islam is by no means monolithic, but most of Islam in Europe, the UK, and the US is the Saudi-bankrolled authoritarian Wahhabi branch of Sunni Islam, and it's less of a religion than a movement seeking political power and hegemony over other nations - rather ironic, seeing the nations affected. The trouble is is that Wahhabism is anti-human rights, anti-womens rights (to the point of outright misogyny), anti-LGBT rights, anti-science (especially evolution); it's a sort of Westboro Baptist Church on steroids. Westboro says "God Hates Fags", Wahhabists behead them in public; Westboro isn't terribly into womens rights, but only Wahhabists go so far as to perform large numbers of female genital mutilations and execute female rape victims for adultery, and so on and so forth.

It's this kind of Islam which we've got to deal with in the US and it should be given exactly the same amount of respect and toleration that WBC gets - or perhaps less.

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