NPR--The Trash of Civilizations
- From: Ali Abunimah <ahabunim@...>
Subject: NPR--The Trash of Civilizations
January 4, 2002
Dear All Things Considered,
Bernard Lewis proposed, in an interview with Robert Siegel on All
Things Considered for January 3, 2002, that the "Islamic World" once
the leader in every field of human endeavor took a back seat to "the
West" some time in the eighteenth century and began a period of
economic, political and social decay from which it has yet to
emerge. "What went wrong" with the Muslim world, he asks.
Mr. Lewis, the father of the "clash of civilizations" thesis gives
us a good example of the kind of flawed and amoral reasoning he uses
to reach his smug conclusions. He uses the example of a cup of
coffee. Here is an excerpt from the interview:
Mr. BERNARD LEWIS (Author, "What Went Wrong?"): Coffee came
originally from Ethiopia. It was brought to the Middle East, it
became very popular in the Middle East and the West first imported
it from the Middle East. Sugar came from Iran, possibly, ultimately
from India. That, too, became well known in the Middle East long
before it was known in Europe. So that coffee and sugar were two
important items among Middle Eastern exports to the Western world.
Then things changed around. The Europeans learned how to grow both
sugar and coffee in their plantations, and to do so more efficiently
and, therefore, more cheaply than in the Middle East. So that by the
18th century, if a Turk or an Arab indulged in that familiar
delight, a cup of sweet coffee, the probability was that the coffee
came from Java or South America and the sugar from the West Indies.
Only the hot water was local. And in the 19th century, even that
ceased to be true, as European companies took over most of the
SIEGEL: There's an implication there that some capacity for
innovation--and you write about it...
Mr. LEWIS: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah.
SIEGEL: ...in terms of science--some capacity for innovation simply
wasn't there in that part of the world.
LEWIS: It had been there, but it was lost or even suppressed. The
Islamic society of the Middle East had been in its prime,
undoubtedly the most advanced, the most creative, the most inventive
on all the frontiers of knowledge in every significant field of
human endeavor. They had led in science and technology, in commerce,
in astronomy, chemistry, physics, you name it. And then suddenly,
they just stopped and began to fall more and more behind the
previously barbarous West. END EXCERPT
Yet Lewis leaves out a few small details about the "previously
barbarous West." What was the great innovation that Europeans came
up with so that Arabs and others could enjoy cheap coffee and sugar?
It was of course the lethal and lucrative combination of aggressive
colonialism and the Atlantic slave trade. Europeans did not invent
slavery, which had been practiced all over the world for millennia,
including in Africa and the Middle East, but one of their
'contributions to civilization,' so to speak, was to systematize it
and industrialize it on an enormous and unprecedented scale. The
European slave trade began in 1502 with the colonization of the
Atlantic islands off Africa by the Portuguese who pioneered the
slave-plantation system, which with the assistance of other
Europeans spread from there to most of northern and southern America
and the West Indies. This system lasted almost four hundred years,
almost destroying the native peoples of America and decimating the
Black population of Africa.
With the kind of detail that Lewis' broad brush approach allows him
to avoid, Tukufu Zuberi describes the genesis of the kind of
innovations that Lewis so much admires, and lords over us as
evidence of "Western" genius and civilization. Following their
successful colonization of the Atlantic islands, and importation of
slaves, Zuberi explains that "it did not take long for the
Portuguese to transport their experience in the islands off the
coast of West Africa to their new American colonies. They brought
sugar experts from the Madeira and Sao Tome plantations. This effort
resulted in the first slave plantation system in the Americas and
quickly outpaced the Atlantic islands in the production of sugar."
By the seventeenth century, with its plantations spread across
Brazil, Portugal "had a prize place in the New World market." The
Dutch, "deeply involved in the European slave trade as sugar
producers and traders in enslaved Africans" surpassed even the
Portuguese. (See "Thicker Than Blood: How Racial Statistics Lie," by
Tukufu Zuberi, University of Minnesota Press, 2001)
It is thus that Europeans managed to produce coffee and especially
sugar so much more cheaply in gold (but dearly in human life) than
the Middle East. For Lewis this is not worth mentioning, and it does
not seem to interfere with his notion of a more enlightened "West."
In fact Lewis specifically attempted to delegitimize any effort to
look beyond purely internal explanations for Islamic/Arab "decay"
towards relationships of power and the history of colonialism as
playing the "blame game" and nursing "neuroses."
Lewis talked glibly throughout the interview of "their civilization"
and "ours" as if the world can be neatly divided into monolithic and
static blocks whose interactions are limited to gladiatorial
confrontations where actual human interactions and the formation of
complex identities that straddle and defy such reductive categories
simply do not exist. And it is only by drawing such simplistic
caricatures--too broad to be of any analytical or explanatory use
that he can come up with a satisfying story of Islamic decadence and
Behind his meaningless monoliths, Lewis hides all the frustrating and
wonderful complexity of the world. It is easy to tell a story of
astonishing decline in the "West" if one wants to. One need only look at
Great Britain. How is it that a country that brought us the Magna Carta
and the Bill of Rights, the industrial revolution, trade unions, technical
innovations in every field, parliamentary democracy and so much more, and
ruled two thirds of the world in an empire over which the sun never set,
ended up by the 1970s as a tiny struggling, ungovernable island, a
basket-case poorer than Italy, whose intellectuals and scientists fled its
impoverished universities in droves, and with no greater strategic
importance than as an American aircraft carrier? How is it that the
country that invented railways two-hundred years ago, simply cannot
operate a modern railway today?
For an even greater story of decline one need only look at the
Spanish and Portuguese empires.
As for ascendancy, one could ask how it is that so many of the
excelling scientists and graduate students in American universities
(in some fields most) come from Asian countries such as India, Korea
Iran, Pakistan and China. At the very least, these facts hint at a
more complex world in which interaction and exchange is more the
norm than the "clash" so beloved of Mr. Lewis and other ideologues
of "Western" superiority.
Mr. Lewis' intellectual integrity was not bolstered by his assertion
that there is no free discussion of any of the issues he raises in
any Muslim country "except Turkey."
What is this freedom to enquire into the past that exists in Turkey?
Is it the fact that anyone who even speaks about Kurdish rights or
history is jailed or persecuted for "terrorism" and "separatism"? Is
it that in Turkey, where Lewis lauds the state of women's rights,
one of the few elected women deputies in parliament was denied her
seat, stripped of her citizenship and exiled because she chose to
wear a headscarf? Is it the same Turkey where people are tortured
and imprisoned for even daring to mention the events in Armenia in
1915, let alone examine them freely? Is it the same country where
the "Law to Protect Ataturk" makes it illegal for journalists and
citizens to examine or criticize almost any aspect of the republic's
founding or political system? According to the CPJ, dozens of
Turkish journalists are in jail for raising precisely the kinds of
questions that Lewis claims are freely debated.
None of this is surprising as Mr. Lewis has long been a defender of
the Turkish state, and a spirited denier of the Armenian genocide.
It is through excesses such as these that Mr. Lewis' reputation as a
scholar has declined significantly in recent years. Among the
unfortunate side effects of the tragedy of September 11 is that he
has suddenly found himself with a new and eager audience among
fawning journalists and a new platform from which to spout such
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