How Did We Become So Hateful?

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Deep Roots of Islamophobia
By James Brooks

America's long festering animus toward Arabs and Islam has finally arrived. From black tie affairs to your local barbecue, you can see it in the U.S.A. You can hear it, too, whispering in the White House and booming from Capitol Hill. Language that would get people fired if applied to blacks or Jews now passes without comment when used against Arabs and Muslims. It can be found somewhere, every day, in almost every newspaper and TV news show in the land. We tend to view this disturbing trend as the result of two, or twenty, or fifty years of politics and events. But we are children of a history we do not know. The roots of our "new" bigotry stretch through our racist American past to a thousand-year old blind spot, one big enough to drive half the world through. It's time to learn where we came from.

It's true that our reaction to September 11, twisted and amplified through the gov-media input stream, opened a dark door in the American heart. Softened up by decades of neoconservative, fundamentalist, pro-Israeli and Hollywood propaganda, we were easy marks for politicians brewing a spirit of national retribution.

But we had already shown our stripes, long before the bigotry got organized enough to establish its own think tanks. From our demonization of Nasser and the PLO to the Iran hostage crisis of 1979, when Iranian-American citizens instantly became "sand niggers" and victims of mobs and hate crimes from coast to coast, we had revealed a wide seam of hatred for Arabs and Islam in the bedrock of our national character.

Today, after years of diligent polishing by powerful friends, this obdurate stone of intolerance is passed off as a sparkling gem, a dynamic, no-nonsense political point of view enjoying the highest official approbation. Bush foreign policy and the continuing round up and incarceration of Arab citizens and immigrants make the identity of the enemy crystal clear.

We have returned to our former habit of publicly attacking races, cultures and religions as a matter of national politics. American racists once again have a "legitimate" language to express their hatred. No longer must the dirty business be kept behind the curtain, when the nation is willing to watch, mute and compliant. Instead, we hide the enemy, especially if she is dead. It seems to be easier to accept what's going on, if she has no humanity, if the dead and dismembered civilians can't be seen, if their race and religion are inferior, if "they will have to change anyway, one way or another", as Tom Friedman might put it. We slip into it so easily, it's as if we've been doing it for a thousand years.

Have you ever stood so close to a Monet that the image dissolves into a sea of swimming color? Step back a pace, and the background begins to resolve. Back another pace, and the foreground jumps out with a sudden force. If we take a few steps back into the deep history of our problem with Islam, we may see the background for what it is. And that may help us to resolve the turbulent foreground of our picture.

For example, what is the background to the new bigots' favorite claim, that Islam is a "uniquely violent religion"? The scriptural perspective is simply embarrassing. Both the Old Testament and the Torah chronicle God's recurring commands to the Hebrews to wipe out everyone in sight, so copiously that the Qur'an looks downright tame by comparison. Christian and Jewish fundamentalists defy their own scriptures when they defame Islam as a violent religion.

Empirically, since the beginning of Islam fourteen centuries ago, the Europeans have been far more bloodthirsty, perhaps by a power of ten or more, than the followers of Mohammed. ("Christendom" casts a wider net than my argument intends, so I will use the term "Europeans", i.e. people of European stock and heritage, wherever they may be.) Not only did Europeans leapfrog the Muslim world in developing sheer killing power, they have also been at each other's throats in large conflicts far more frequently than have Arab Muslims in their own sphere. And of course Europeans nearly invented large scale genocide and colonization of foreign lands as a state-commercial enterprise. What do Muslims have in their history that even begins to compare with the seizure, annihilation, and occupation of an entire hemisphere?

And what, to cite just one example, do Europeans have to compare with the Moorish occupation of Spain? Instead of sowing lasting bloodshed and dispossession, Islamic Spain allowed Muslims, Christians and Jews to live together in fairly peaceful co-existence for 800 years, as they co-developed the beautiful Spanish language and culture. You could take a lot of Spanish in a lot of American schools without learning much of anything about this rich and instructive heritage.

In a recent article in the New Statesman, Ziauddin Sardar gets to the heart of the matter when he writes that "the west's hatred of Islam stems from, more than anything else, the denial of its true lineage. The western world as we understand it is a child of Islam. Without Islam, the west - however we conceive it today - would not exist. And, without the west, Islam is incomplete and cannot survive the future."

If you're having trouble with "the western world…is a child of Islam", welcome to your blind spot. Happily, it's not about theology, but to clear it up we'll have to go back thirteen hundred years, to the first contacts between Islam and Christian Europe. You may experience some embarrassment along the way, especially when you realize that it's a natural and important part of the history that Arabs and Muslims learn today.

In the year 700, Islam and the Arabic language were on the move. Soon their influence would stretch from India to Spain. Europe was entering its Dark Ages, nursing its dwindling links to a dead Roman culture. Arabic scholarship, science and invention surpassed Europe in every way. Arabic scholars would soon include Greeks, Persians, Indians, Africans, Christians, Jews and more. Arabic would become as essential as English is today. Europe would cling to Latin, already a dying language.

Four hundred years later, Europe began to catch on. Translating more Arabic texts in Latin, we began to learn. Not only did we imbibe the fundamentals of our math, science and technology in Arabic, we learned the very roots of our culture and democracy at the feet of our Islamic neighbors. At a time when very few in Europe could even read Greek, the Arabs were already rescuing the genius of ancient Greece from oblivion. They translated Aristotle, Plato, Socrates, Pythagoras, the whole Pantheon of Greek learning and art into Arabic, and brought it back to life in Islamic culture.

We learned "our" Greek heritage by translating the Arabic translations into Latin. For centuries, the fundamental texts of budding European scholarship were based on Arabic translations, and Europe's scholarship continued to be informed by its more learned Arabic contemporaries. Europeans even copied principles of Islamic scholarship and academic organization in building their own nascent academies. But soon we were spinning the myth that we'd got it all directly from "our" Greek ancestors. Which may have made it easier to launch the Crusades, to begin murdering our teachers.

The injection of ancient Greek learning and art into Church-bound Europe is generally held to be the engine of the Renaissance, and the beginning of our humanist traditions. The fact that we learned it all from our Islamic intellectual superiors has been blotted out of Western history for a thousand years. The language of algebra and the concept of zero were also vital to the growth of Europe. By the year 800, Arabic mathematicians had learned these tools and the place-valued decimal system from the scholars of India. Four hundred years later, Fibonacci wrote his groundbreaking Liber abaci to introduce modern (Arabic) numerals and the Hindu-Arabic decimal system to a Europe still muddling with Roman numerals.

The word 'algebra' is Arabic, from the book "Hisab al-jabr w'al muqabala", written around 830 by the renowned astronomer and mathematician Mohammed ibn-Musa al-Khowarizmi. When translated into Latin, it caused a sensation in Europe - 310 years later. Where would Newton have been, without the Arabs? On what would he and Leibniz have based the calculus? Whither Maxwell and Einstein, without Islam? How can we receive such gifts and perpetually rebuke the giver?

There are many other examples, including the Arabic roots of European music and musical instruments, and the rich Islamic/Arabic influence spanning the people and cultures of southern and eastern Europe, to name but two. We have a lot of history to recover. Who would we be, without this cornucopia of gifts?

Even the engines of our world dominance are built with intellectual handtools forged in the Muslim mind. If we are not the child of Islam, we are at best its kid brother. The one that likes to blow up frogs with firecrackers.

Being a kid brother myself, I know the signs, when it's time to grow up and show your big brother some love and respect. A time to reconcile the past, and talk man to man. You find out he's not such a bad guy after all. And he sure knows a lot.

James Brooks, writer and former business owner, resides in Worcester, Vermont. Currently, Brooks serves as webmaster for www.vtjp.org.