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NPR--The Trash of Civilizations

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  • Islamic News and Information Network
    From: Ali Abunimah To: atc@npr.org Subject: NPR--The Trash of Civilizations January 4, 2002 Dear All Things Considered, Bernard
    Message 1 of 1 , Jan 4, 2002
      From: Ali Abunimah <ahabunim@...>
      To: atc@...
      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
      public utilities.

      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
      Western ascendancy.

      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
      ideological drivel.


      Ali Abunimah

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