Friday, January 15, 2010
Western Amnesia and Islamnesia
The word amnesia is made up of two Greek words: mnesia, which means mindfulness, awareness, consciousness; and what is called the "alpha privative" -- the letter a which negates the word to which it is appended (e.g., "apolitical", "atheist", "asymmetrical", etc.). My coinage Islamnesia cleverly, if I don't say so myself, puns on the word, insofar as "Islam" already contains the "am" of "amnesia", thus echoing it; yet to the literate and attentive reader will be parsed to divide at the fault line of "Isla/m/nesia" -- where the letter "m" functions to end the meaning of the first word and begin the meaning of the second word, resulting semantically in the combined meaning of a mindfulness or awareness of Islam: the precise opposite of our topic today, the amnesia about Islam that has overcome nearly the entire West in our post-modern era.
Somewhere along the way, the West acquired a serious case of amnesia about a major part of its history: The West largely forgot about the Muslim world.
This didn’t happen overnight, of course. It was a long process, perhaps lasting centuries. Nor was its effect the total obliteration of Islam from the public conscious of the West—only its recession into a strange, exotic, and mostly irrelevant part of the world far, far away (and “far, far away” really meant something back in the days before the stupendous revolutions in transportation and communications technology of the 20th century).
This historical amnesia began in the Modern era (which began approximately with the late Renaissance merging into the Reformation); and it took a while—several centuries, perhaps—for the West to fully “forget”.
Like any major civilizational process, the Western amnesia about Islam is complex and has more than one cause. Three causes come to mind:
1) Western Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder
2) Ascendancy of the West vs. the Deterioration of the Muslim world
3) PC MC.
Let us examine these in more detail:
1) One cause was posited a couple of years ago by Bill Warner (I don’t know if anyone before him thought of this): It could be called a semi-consciously willful forgetting due to a kind of post-traumatic stress disorder on a mass civilizational scale: our collective history of painful and terrifying experiences with hostile Muslims over the centuries.
Most of my readers will ask at this point: "Huh? What 'painful and terrifying experiences with hostile Muslims' over the centuries are you talking about?" That's my point. The histories we learn in school, from high school clear through college, have nearly completely whitewashed the massive presence of Islam from Western history. As a consequence, most reasonably educated and intelligent Westerners have remained comfortably oblivious to that large part of their own history. This has not occurred as part of some kind of nefarious plot by some dastardly cabal of "Elites" bent on subverting their own West. That would be the easy, silly and potentially reckless explanation. What has occurred is what I am trying to diagnose here. It has occurred through a long, protracted, complex process of a shift in worldview -- one important part of which, as I said above, being the PTSD the West experienced over centuries.
I attended a major American university, and I received a B.A. in Western history. Plus, I read about Western history on my own time, voluminously, spending thousands of hours in the library roaming the book stacks and fingering through the card catalogues (back in the days when you could literally, physically "finger" through a card catalogue). In all my years of doing this (approximately the latter quarter of the 20th century), I can attest to the fact that major aspects of the Islamic factor in Western history -- and in world history -- were either glossed over in a flash easily forgotten, or were simply left umentioned altogether.
One could go through the entire series of Ancient and Medieval History at any given American college (as I did), listening to lectures nearly every day for six solid months, reading all the syllabi, and plowing through all the various books by different authors about the subject, with the only significant mention of Islam being those notorious Crusades. And then the mention would invariably depict that convulsion in history as (at best) two mutually hostile religiously intolerant civilizations attacking each other (or more often than not even implying that the Muslims were unfairly attacked and, pace Saladin, were the more reasonable and tolerant and wise of the two sides).
The fact of the matter is (as those of us who have autodidactically become Islamo-literate now know) that what are known as the Crusades were largely battles of self-defense by the West against a hostile occupying force of Muslims who had offensively attacked, and violently conquered and continued to oppress the peoples of vast regions of land to the North and West of Arabia -- major parts of Asia Minor, the entire Middle East and North Africa. And the West only grudgingly, belatedly got its shit together to counter-attack to protect the horribly oppressed non-Muslim populations of these areas -- all of which had flourished for a good 300 years prior to the outbreak of Islam as part of a growing and thriving Christian civilization (e.g., many of the most innovative Christian philosophers came from North Africa (Tertullian, Augustine, Origen, Clement, Cyril) which had long been enculturated by the sophisticated Roman Empire before, and after, that Empire itself became Christianized). But to know that basic massive fact about our Western history (among many other similar ones in this general regard), one would, these days, have to learn that on one's own, and the people whose responsibility is to educate us would usually be negligent in the matter.
Just to pluck one example out of thousands I could adduce: I went through two and a half decades of a passion for Western history, five years of that at a major university wherein I had many personal discussions with history professors -- and not once during that time did I learn that the great Spanish writer Cervantes, known for the perennial classic Don Quixote, had himself been a prisoner of Muslims in North Africa, and had been enslaved by Muslims (Muslims routinely abducted Westerners and enslaved them, for centuries -- documented in the book White Gold, whose author estimates approximately one million Westerners who suffered this cruel fate at the hands of Muslims). Nor did I once learn that in fact Cervantes spent most of his life (after he was luckily ransomed free from his Muslim dungeon) writing plays about how evil and dangerous Islam is: that was his true passion, not so much the novel for which he is famous. But one would never learn this important fact by majoring in Western history at a major Western university in the latter half of the 20th century! I only found out about it almost by chance one day, when I decided to Google "Cervantes" and "Islam" and spent over an hour scrolling through pages and pages of links, before I found an obscure, dusty old tome titled Michel de Cervantes, sa vie, son temps, son oeuvre politique et littéraire ("Miguel de Cervantes: His life, his time, his political and literary works"), by some 19th century historian, Émile Chasles. The book is likely not available even in most university libraries, and had someone not seen fit to scan it and upload it onto Google Books (where the entire book is available for free), I may never have discovered it. Also, it's not translated into English, which further limits its audience. It should be on the syllabus of required (or at least recommended) reading for every course in Western history -- certainly every course dealing with the history of the literature classics; and should be used by at least a few professors here and there as a teaching point in the history of Islam and the West. And shame on the West for letting such an important study lie largely ignored among the trillions of interstices of the Internet, where it will be found only by sheer and exceedingly seldom accident.
So, let us return more broadly to our theme.
This overt Islamic hostility against the West lasted a full ten centuries really, approximately an entire millennium: a thousand years from the 7th century assaults by Muslim armies that pillaged and occupied vast regions that had been civilized by classical Rome, then by Christian Rome (throughout the Middle East, North Africa, then the Iberian peninsula and then threatening right into the heart of Europe only to be repelled by a coalition of Europeans at the Battle of Tours in the early 8th century)—clear through to the 17th century when finally the balance of power began to shift from the Muslim armies to the West. During this time horrific slaughters, slavery and terror attacks (the infamous "razzias" or Blitzkrieg raids which, although they predated explosives, were no less terrorizing) were the norm as Muslims kept trying to realize their expansionism, often succeeding spectacularly (as with the conquest of Spain which they held for nearly 800 years, though finally reversed in 1492, as well as Byzantium in 1453, and the earlier and later Ottoman occupation of the Balkans).
From the point of the 17th century forward, however, the West embarked upon a spectacular ascendancy of global superiority, exponentially advancing with each passing century after that, while the Muslim world by stupendously stark contrast deteriorated more and more, since its former glory days and so-called “golden ages” were due entirely to two factors extraneous to any internal civilizational substance:
a) its ability to put competitively military teeth behind both its expansionism and its internal societal order;
b) its temporary sociological resource of talented non-Muslims (mostly Christians and Jews, as well as Hindus and Persians) who, while they lasted before they were either mostly killed off or converted to Islam, provided, in their capacity under cruel and forced servitude, nearly all of the civilizational substance operative within Islam.
Which leads us to the second cause:
2) The Muslim world receded from its principal way of being noticed: its ability to attack, invade and threaten us. By the 18th century, all it could do is nip at our heels, mostly through piracy in the Mediterranean and the Indian Ocean, and occasionally into the Atlantic. While this piracy was a major nuisance, it also exemplified how low Islam had sunk by then, such that all it could do was attack ships and no longer could launch an actual military attack, the last significant one being at the end of the 17th century.
In some ways, as it receded more and more after the close of the 17th century, the Muslim world became for certain Westerners sort of like a strange exotic menagerie to marvel over (and a rare few to actually visit, like Sir Richard Burton or Flaubert or, at the turn of the 20th century, Pierre Loti) almost as an entertaining fiction far away, for example gleaned through that most popular bestseller of the 18th and 19th centuries, The Thousand and One Arabian Nights.
Indeed, just as the Western imagination, informed by the “Orientalism” of yore not only of scholars but of the arts & entertainment of the pre-cinema pre-television West (when people had to suffer reading books and seeing plays and operas for their entertainment), created a certain reductionist Islam, so our post-Orientalist PC MC era has fashioned a fictional construct of a Peaceful Diverse Tolerant Islam That Has Contributed So Much to Science and the Arts Over the Centuries.
And while the former construct of the Orientalist era may have been reductionist in certain ways, at least in the popular imagination, it was much closer to the terrible reality of Islam than is our current PC MC Myth of the Religion of Peace. The Orientalist reductionism was mainly so due to the fact that Islam had receded from the world and remained withdrawn in its viscously collapsed webs like a surly old spider in a global ghetto hostile to most visits and intercourse with the rest of the world. Indeed, Islam went through its own post-traumatic stress disorder on a mass scale, during those less than three centuries after their final humiliating defeat in 1683 into the 20th century (when another supremely humiliating event happened to hurt their feelings, the unprecedented dismantling of the Caliphate by which the Ottoman Empire was carved up, by the West, into Turkey and other nations whose boundaries were drawn by the British and French after WW1) -- before their disastrously serendipitous discovery of oil in the early 20th century.
Lacking the fundamental sociocultural health of the West, however, Muslim societies and polities had no worthwhile reality to forget because of the trauma—and therefore no reality to recover: They had only the historical memory of their glory days harking back to evil and fabulously corrupt empires. And, of course, along with this, their culture of a fanatical, perennial paranoia about “Enemies” who must be fought, killed and or subjugated in preparation for a pneumopathologically cultivated, and quite chillingly literal, apocalypse. Just because that apocalypse (and the Paradise it is supposed to presage) isn't real and so will never arrive, doesn't mean it has not inflamed and inspired the Muslim mind for centuries, right into our very own century now.
Ironically and perversely, in the West that won by default (by becoming stupendously superior to Islam in terms of military, technology, science, and geopolitics), the PC MC construct that became increasingly influential after the 18th century, and in the 20th century became fashionably dominant amid a condition for the last 50 years (and increasing exponentially in the last decade) of having available the most information about the texts, tenets, traditions, history, and the news about Islam and about Muslims that we, or anyone, has ever had since Islam, nearly a millennium and a half ago, first spawned in the hot Arabian desert its brood of viciously portentous, and ominously multiplying minions of scorpions. Indeed, the intellectual bankruptcy of the PC MC construct of Islam is vastly inferior, in concrete terms of providing knowledge about the Muslim Gestalt as well as mores, to The Thousand and One Arabian Nights of the olden days. And, given the amount of information we now have, compared with what was available in the West when that novel was popular during the 18th and 19th centuries, such a contrast in historical literacy is unconscionably unforgivable.
Which brings us to the third cause:
3) This has only developed relatively recently, approximately over the past 50 years (and increasing exponentially with each passing decade): the shift of the Western worldview into PC MC. It is entirely coincidental that PC MC has become dominant and mainstream throughout the West just when a complex of many different factors have coalesced to galvanize Muslims around the world to revive their original Islamic imperative to conquer the world. The effect of this third cause of Western amnesia, PC MC, is strangely ironic and perverse: for just when our former foe is reviving precisely the behaviors that should rationally cause us to remember why we forgot them and thus who they are (our implacable inveterate Enemy), PC MC comes along and adds a new way to forget them—through sanitizing and airbrushing out of existence the threat they embody.
This PC MC type of amnesia is, of course selective: We are to forget (or, rather, we are to continue to internally censor our thoughts and feelings about the real nature of Muslims and their Islam) Muslims and Islam in terms of any negative stereotypes about them—a legacy of our shameful racist bigoted past of Orientalism—and simultaneously we must be mindful to only think of Muslims and Islam in a positive light. This is still amnesia, but adds the wrinkle of “remembering” a false construct, a fantasy hologram: the good moderate Muslim and the peaceful Islam, in place of our continually suppressed memory of the real Islam and real Muslims. PC MC does this by means of a complex paradigm primarily dependent upon the #1 Commandment of PC MC: the White West is evil and should be ashamed of itself, while all Brown People are lovely and wonderful (and if some might do bad things it is always because they were driven to do so in one way or another by our evil oppression of them). Muslims, through their fanatical alacrity for violence and international ability to deliver it, have elbowed their way to the top of the list of Brown People whom we must respect and never criticize (let alone condemn and concretely oppose).
And PC MC would not be able to do this, nor would it be able to have become dominant and mainstream, were it imposed from without: it is sincerely believed by millions of ordinary Westerners and not-so-ordinary Elites among them. The ascendancy of PC MC throughout the West was not a coup d’etat by a sinister cabal: it was a coup de State of Mind.
The good news is that it only took a mere half century or so for this latest shift in world view -- the mainstream dominance of PC MC -- to become fashionable (albeit powerfully so); and so what was done in a relatively brief and breezy period of time, from the perspective of history, can be undone: and our Western Amnesia can be cured so that the West may restore the Islamnesia its peoples and cultures possessed all along, for a good millennium and a half.
The only question is not whether this will happen, but how soon it will happen, and whether the reawakening will be soon enough to avoid too much expense, tumult and bloodshed -- or whether we will continue to dither. The latter question is entirely up to, and the responsiblity of, all those among us who continue to hit the snooze alarm on this most pressing, exigent issue of our long, sleepy morning of this new millennium -- a nap already 14 years long, with no sign on the horizon that we will not overtake Rip Van Winkle's record of a 20-year nap.