The L.a. Times--February 27, 2011
An article in today’s edition refers to the dreams of Islamic North Africa creating to a new golden age. It is surprising how few Americans realize that there was a time when the best place to live within the Islamic world. Here you found the best medicine, the finest doctors, the world's premier universities, and the most tolerant society on the planet. It isn't that life was wonderful compared to today's society enjoyed by those of us in the West. But compared to the alternatives available in the world that time, the Islamic world, especially the Arabic world, was a far superior place to live.
Naturally, this fact is well known throughout the Islamic world today. Much of the hatred of the West which expresses itself in terrorism rose out of a belief that this golden age was stolen away by Western imperialism. Certainly it is true that imperialism stripped away much dignity and insulted the honor of the region, but this would hardly have been possible during the golden age. At that time, Europe was in the throes of the dark ages. It was only possible for the west to exploit the Islamic world after that world degenerated scientifically, militarily, and socially.
It seems unlikely that anyone alive when Europe was so weak and the Arabs so strong could possibly have predicted this astonishing reversal of fortune. Europe was what had been, the ruin of the richness and vigor of the Roman Empire. All across North Africa science was flourishing. Education was respected and strongly supported by society. It is natural to ask, "what went wrong?"
If you're interested in a detailed answer I suggest the book entitled, What Went Wrong? By Bernard Lewis. The answers are complex, but the pattern is rather clear. Like China, a great civilization turned inward. An inherent sense of superiority led to a contempt for the ideas found and the rest of the world. Any civilization which forgets that it had to earn its place in the world finds itself believing that its superiority is a natural law, a given, an unalterable fact of reality.
This mistaken conviction leads the deluded society into a state of rigidity. Since we are the best and must be the best there is nothing to be gained by paying attention to the rest of the world. Once a society comes to believe this it ceases to make progress, more importantly, it fails to respect the progress being made by others. Crystallized by its own sense of the inevitability of supremacy, the society ceases to move and advance. However far the rest of the world is behind this society, it now begins to catch up and in time surpasses those who were once in the lead.
It was religious extremism more than anything else, although arrogance cannot be ignored as a contributing factor, which turned the Islamic world to fundamentalism and to a sense of entitlement. Being the favorite of God, there was no need to earn a place at the head of progress. Surely this spot would just be granted.
Contrast this situation with what is currently happening in China. After decades of brutal communist repression, China is once again opening up to the rest of the world. Of course, the last time this happened, China was forced to interact with the world which they had rejected. The situation under Mao was not analogous to either of the cases I've already described above. While it's true that China under his rule was behind a "bamboo curtain", it is also true that he sought to modernize the country. His intentions were focused on science and industry rather than cultural matters, but he did much to make China into a modern nation. When Hong Kong was returned to Chinese control there was speculation around the world as to what would happen to the incredibly wealthy area. With communist ideology lead them to kill the goose that laid the golden egg? If the communists did not ban free enterprise in this area how would they reconcile that action with the collectivist beliefs which they used to justify their domination of the nation?
What happened was quite astonishing. Wealth and financial success simply could not be ignored. China needed the money and the energy of Hong Kong. The golden eggs were too valuable. Unsurprisingly, once this admission was made by the communist party, free enterprise began creeping in and spreading throughout the entire nation. Today we see a China which is undoubtedly more free that has ever been in all its history. Which is not to say that China is a free country, but by comparison to the past it is an age, at least, of hope.
So great that the changes been that the Chinese government is now strongly advocating the teachings of Confucius. Of all the counterrevolutionary ideas despised under Mao Tse Tung, the most pernicious, the most dangerous, were those of the Sage. Yet today, without any outward sign of shame, the Communist Party is doing its best to convince its citizens that the old philosopher had it right after all. It seems impossible to believe, at least for someone like me who grew up with an awareness of such extremes as the Cultural Revolution, but the government of China is now trying to pacify and please its citizens rather than simply force them into submission. I've seen much change in this world. Some of it was predictable, much of it was not. But of all the changes that occurred, the continuing democratization of the world was a change for which I fervently hoped and which I believe will continue for the foreseeable future.
There are dangers inherent in democratization, of course. After all, in a democracy the bad guy may win the election. But I believe that the world is much safer than it was and will continue to become even more so as democracy spreads. I believe the last of the great wars is over. There is simply too much to lose and so little to gain when one applies mass violence to national problems. Look at Germany and Japan today. One could argue that they have created an economic empire which reaches around the globe. Had Tojo and Hitler built their nations economically rather than militarily, that might have attained the same end without the deaths of so many millions. I hope that China has learned this lesson.