x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

The region must reach for its tolerant past

A comparison between the glories of Baghdad in the ninth century and the state of the region today shows how weakness can lead to intolerance.

The Arab essayist Al Jahiz wrote an epistle in the ninth century rebuking the segregation of men and women and the perception of singing and poetry as anathema to Islamic values. Even today Arab writers find it hard to express similar views with such boldness.  "If looking at women was illegal or shameful, he would have not done that," he commented regarding an anecdote of a pious man who had long conversations with a woman.

It's not surprising that Al Jahiz, who was affiliated with the Mutazila school of thought that dominated Basra and Baghdad between the 8th and 10th centuries, would express such views. But that his society accommodated and even supported them is worth noting. The ruling elite of the time formally embraced the Mutazilite movement, which held that questions of faith and life should be grounded in reason. This encouraged a relatively open exchange of views, which was not just accessible to philosophers. Musicians, scientists, and theologians also thrived in this environment. Their works, many of which would be translated into Latin, were taught for centuries at universities both within Europe and in the Islamic world.

A 20-volume collection of songs and poems, The Book of Songs, was one of the period's most famous works. What would the authorities of some nations make of it today? Many fight to their last breath to prove that the use of musical instruments is in contradiction to Islamic values. Would Al Jahiz laugh or cry if he learnt that this debate is ongoing? In Baghdad and Cairo, some of the greatest mosques and libraries in the world were being built. But the cities were also teeming with public baths and cafes. 

The fact that the poetry of Abu Nuwas survived for hundreds of years, full of verses about what would be considered taboo subjects even today, indicates that a degree of openness and tolerance survived for centuries. Even the latest editions of his works omit some of his more daring verses. Indeed, as the state's patronage of the Mutazila movement began to decline, aspects of intolerance started to take root. It's hard to argue, however, that it was only the institutionalisation of religion that sowed the early seeds of extremism. We know that even the Mutazili patrons of the Abbasid empire used religion to serve political ends and that they persecuted their literalist opponents.

Could the end of the state's adoption of a free thinking model be a cause for modern intolerance and radical extremism? Is that why some Arab societies are less tolerant in some respects of social and political life than their ancestors more than 11 centuries ago?   Some have long countered that the absence of tolerance is a natural reaction to centuries of colonialism and cultural invasion in the region, which today takes the form of globalisation. The reaction to that, according to this view, is that societies have shut themselves up in order to protect themselves.

One result of this "shutting up", according to Fouzi Skali, a Moroccan Islamic expert, is going back to perceived roots; that is, a Muslim's life should be modelled after that of the Prophet and, indeed, the Quran. This has led in turn to a literalist interpretation that paid no heed to either social or historical contexts. These literalists where the precursors of extremist groups like al Qa'eda, Dr Skali argues.

The real challenge facing Arab societies today, however, is not only groups like al Qa'eda, but the societies themselves. The existence of extremist and fundamentalist groups is a symptom of the traces of extremism that still survive in many societies. In other words, a society that has given birth to extremism, must have nurtured its seeds in order for it to grow. Undoubtedly, a large part of that extremism has germinated after decades of unflinching American support for Israel and as a result of the US foreign policy in the Arab and Islamic world. That unquestionably fuels extremism's survival.

Most of the Arab societies today live in a state of uncertainty. They are fed daily one set of images from the developed world and another of their compatriots or co-religionists being humiliated. Meanwhile, many suffer poverty and illiteracy, some degree of political and social unrest, and others, even foreign occupation. Most of the action in the Arab world, therefore, is not a calculated reaction. And most reactionary measures are as futile as they are intolerant.

A comparison between Al Jahiz's time and ours, tempts one to conclude that political, economic and cultural weakness leads to intolerance and extremism. But does that mean that their resolution will have to wait for Arab states to establish themselves as more competent international actors and to build stronger political institutions? Will this revive the region's tolerant past? Perhaps. Until then, a little nostalgia could do. Not the nostalgia that promotes an interpretation of texts out of historical context, but rather a nostalgia for a state of openness and tolerance and, maybe, for a bit of confidence. mhabboush@thenational.ae