Washington 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.