Tuesday, February 17, 2009

God's Crucible

Are Islam's fundamentalists taking a good thing too far, or has Islam always been destructive and anti-democratic? Militant secularists and xenophobes believe the latter is true. Last year David Levering Lewis issued a loud disagreement with his book God's Crucible.

Muslims have also been Europeans for almost as long as they have been anything. Al-Andalus was the name of the westernmost province of the Islamic empire, which included most of Spain. They've been present in eastern Europe as well (Quick: what's continental Europe's largest city? Hint: It's a Muslim one.)

The Dark Ages were in fact only dark if you were down with Jesus. While Christendom slumped, Islamic culture created the greatest libraries ever, advanced astronomy, algebra and medicine, and invented chess. We owe what knowledge we have of ancient Greece to Arab scholars.

So it's clear that Islam is capable of sustaining a great empire, even a tolerant, pluralistic, peace-loving society. Lewis takes this thread a step farther and bemoans the Arab defeat at the Battle of Poitiers in 732. In God's Crucible he openly roots against the prevailing Christian army, on the premise that a bigger Muslim expansion would have benefited Europe.

Critics have called this thesis a bit of a reach. John Derbyshire points out that Lewis' argument rests on "counterfactual speculations," that is, arguments that do not rely on evidence. It could well be that a uniformly Muslim Europe would have advanced technology and prevented the Crusades, but it didn't work out that way. Historical "what ifs" can go no further than that: there's nothing to back up the theorizing.

Joan Acocella says that writing from the West on Islam tends toward the polemical, due to both the ideology of post-colonialism and the recent prominence of the Islamic terrorist. This is the major problem with Lewis' book. He gleefully plows a cultural minefield by calling Islam advanced and Christendom backward.

To wish that the Hawaiians conquered the world rather than the British is exciting, but the argument can't overcome its burden of political resentment. To sincerely appreciate what al-Andalus was, rather than could have been, there is plenty of material.

So what's Lewis up to? He is not a scholar of Islam. His previous subject was W.E.B. Du Bois, which gives a clue to what Lewis is seeking in his lament for Muslim Europe: racial harmony. Al-Andalus' most notable characteristic was la convivencia, the somewhat peaceful, intermittently tolerant cohabitation of three religions. There's plenty of evidence though of animosity towards Christians, Jews and Vikings during this putative Muslim utopia.

Lewis' unwavering endorsement of Muslim Europe arrives when immigrant communities permeate the Continent. There are urgent questions as to the inclusion of these people, often decried as premodern zealots, into the world's most advanced society. The issue has many faces: the legacy of the Rushdie affair, the possibility of Turkish admission into the European Union, and the French ban on the veil. It's clear one way or another a new convivencia must emerge, but there's no use wishing for a time machine.