One of the doctoral students with whom I am privileged to work recently lent me a PBS documentary, Cities of Light: The Rise and Fall of Islamic Spain (2007), suggesting that I might find it of interest. Indeed, I found it thought provoking and its central themes evocative of several major issues confronting our polity today. Unfortunately, those parallels are distressing, given what occurred in Islamic Spain and the strong cultural, political and economic achievements that were lost with its decline and descent into war, terror and chaos.
I do not mean here to recount the complex history of this region, but several basic themes highlighted in the film stood out for me. From approximately 700 A.D. until perhaps the early 1100s, the southern provinces in Spain were consolidated under one ruling dynasty. The population and culture of the region reflected a rich mixture of Jews, Christians and Muslims co-existing under tolerant, if autocratic, Islamic rule. The culture was, to say the least, a magnificently textured mosaic of multiple languages, religions and values. Its achievements in a brief space of time were little short of astonishing in medicine, agriculture, astronomy, mathematics, music, architecture and philosophy, among other fields. While the population could hardly be said to have come to agreement on core ontological or epistemic beliefs, the people nonetheless co-existed peacefully and tolerantly and their shared accomplishments were, historians agree, remarkable.
This all ended with the death of an immensely successful ruler of this reign, which spurred the growth of widespread popular fears for the future and power mongering among those who wished to replace him. Ambitious would-be leaders began first to scapegoat Jews for the lack of a clear path ahead and then to claim that these individuals were responsible for the apprehension that all in the society now felt. From this scenario, events cascaded into a period of Muslim-on-Muslim violence, hostility and upheaval in which widespread insecurity wrought civil war. Muslims today refer to this era in the region as the time of “strife.” At its end, a good share of the Iberian Peninsula was adrift and now composed of small and divided principalities; much of its rapidly gained cultural, political and economic glory literally were in ruins.
While I here stress only the first historical episode of the disquieting social chaos and brokenness that beset the region for some 500 years, I should at least note that the chapter I highlight was repeated, and with even greater murderousness and cruelty, as the provinces came under Christian rule in the 14th and 15th centuries. What I find interesting are the themes that typified the descent into barbarism in each scenario. I stress those here for purposes of comparing them briefly to our nation’s own evolving political situation.
In every instance, commenting historians in this well-made film tell us, these societies were most successful economically, politically and culturally when their inhabitants and rulers found ways to use their heterogeneity and the natural tensions and frictions such created in values and norms to generate creative solutions to their shared challenges. The social glue in each case was mutual tolerance and an almost intuitive collective understanding in the population that without it, those underlying differences could undo the progress otherwise underway. It was doubtless a practical rather than an ideologically or philosophically woven tolerance, especially among the non-elite. Yet, this represented solid, if somewhat low, ground and it did not need to be more to succeed.
All of this ended amidst fear, on the death of the region’s ruler, and that anxiety resulted in scapegoating and specific individuals (often self-righteously enraged persons) seeking power by encouraging dissensus and division among citizens, that is, among neighbors, by preaching social purification along doctrinal claims, including, for example, that no Jew should ever have authority over a Muslim and the like. These same power-questing individuals held up sub-populations (Jews, Christians, “wrongly believing” Muslims) for ridicule and worse and advanced all manner of absolutist claims in their pursuit of idealized abstract claims. These leaders claimed that in no event could one tolerate the “other,” and society must be “cleansed” or purified of their taint.
I find all of this particularly striking, as the United States is, like Islamic Spain was, an extremely diverse society, whether measured by religion, race, ethnic background, national heritage or other characteristics. By way of analogy to Islam’s “Cities of Light” in Spain, America has prospered as its regime and diverse people have found ways and means to tolerate their many differences while allowing their underlying “frictions” to quicken possibilities for innovation, experimentation and creativity. The United States has progressed in spite of the fact that social advancement has occurred fitfully and often with accompanying injustice.
Now, however, we confront rapid change in the guise of ongoing globalization, with consequent fear in America’s population which, with the addition of the recent economic downturn, has created fertile ground for that anxiety to bear fruit, as evidenced by the rise of popular media figures appealing to scapegoating of immigrants and pressing absolutist claims concerning all manner of social and political concerns and offering dogmatic assertions with little or no tolerance for dissenting points-of view and so on. These individuals are not alone, of course. Their audiences gain a sense of meaning from such claims, and those concerns and their supposed antidotes have yielded elected leaders who either believe them or are willing to adopt them to gain power. Most of these matters have received at least some press attention and none have yet wrought internal social breakdown and war in America as they did in Islamic Spain. Nor have they led to the violence, imprisonment and slaughter those populations endured.
Nonetheless, fear and its accompanying insecurity create space for blamecasting and scapegoating, whether of individual populations, or of government or both. These behaviors have today resulted in many instances in a politics of rancor, power seeking and intolerance typified by absolutist claims and rigid and “pure” ideological posturing. In this politics, some are now willing to sacrifice the nation (via default or recession) or to punish unpopular groups (for example, women seeking abortions, immigrants, the poor) in the name of abstract doctrinal absolutisms.
The parallels to the reasons for the decline of the rich civilization of the heterogeneous people of Islamic Spain need not be perfect to remind the analyst of the importance of sustaining reason and tolerance in our democratic politics. Absolutism, intolerance and quests for ideological purity are not friends of freedom. And yet, paradoxically, they do provide millions of people an easy measure of meaning in a swiftly changing and anxiety producing economic and social context fueled by the continuing upheavals wrought by globalization. The question now confronting the nation is whether America can maintain itself as a culture of at least potential light, or whether it, too, like the citizens of Islamic Spain, must fall prey to the very human desire to make sense of difficult challenges by seizing on false prophets, easy, if wrong, answers to complex problems and absolutist claims of all sorts. To ask this question is merely to restate the age-old dilemma confronting any diverse self-governing people: Can they discipline their avarice, fear, insecurity and quest for power in the name of shared values and a common interest in human freedom? This, America and American politics must do if the country wishes to continue to pursue its quest to be a true City of Light for its citizens. This aspiration is no easier today than in Islamic Spain. The possibilities await.