Saturday, June 24, 2006

Andalusian Lessons

During these times of a much hyped clash of civilizations, it is perhaps instructive to look back at another such encounter. For several centuries, medieval Spain was the fault line that bore the brunt of the colliding tectonic plates of the Muslim East and Western Christianity. Yet this border zone of competing empires, under largely Muslim rule for over seven centuries, managed to flourish and develop to unparalleled heights of culture and scientific advancement.

My interest in al-Andalus was ignited after reading Leon L'Africain (Leo Africanus in the English translation), a carefully researched epic historical novel by the inimitable Amin Maalouf. It is the story of Hassan al Wazzan , a Granadan by birth who flees Spain to Fes with his family in the waning years of Moorish presence. Later, as a diplomat and explorer, he is captured and brought to Rome, baptized and becomes an adviser to the Pope. Most helpful however, has been the very readable historical narrative by Maria Rosa Menocal: Ornament of the World (see previous post) which provides an excellent description of the inner workings of Moorish Spain. The book provides a clear-eyed and objective analysis of what made al-Andalus work, warts and all. A friend thought that the book gave too much credit to non-Muslims for the achievements of al-Andalus. But that is exactly the point, is it not? The genius of the Muslim rulers of al-Andalus is that, in their tolerance and their love of knowledge, they allowed the different religious communities to thrive and contribute to the Andalusian culture and civilization.

To many Arabs and Muslims, mired in political and cultural stagnation, al-Andalus evokes deep sentiments of nostalgia for a mythologized world. To some, it also represents hope for the future. If our culture and religion were capable of helping create al-Andalus, the thinking goes, then we should be able to pull ourselves out of our quagmire. What redeeming values represented by the history of al-Andalus are best suited for this rescue operation depends on where on the Arab political spectrum you fall.

When fanatical fundamentalists speak of al-Andalus, it is to boast of conquest and empire. The irony is that, had the early Andalusian rulers been of that same mindset, al-Andalus would never have become an "ornament of the world". In fact during the centuries of Muslim rule, fanatic hordes would occasionally invade from North Africa, undoing what the more enlightened rulers had achieved. The end of Moorish Spain also came at the hands of fanatical hordes, this time Christians from the North bringing with them the horrors of the Inquisition.

The lessons learned from al-Andalus are that civilizational clashes need not be destructive provided that some modicum of mutual respect exists and that each side is secure enough to learn from the other. It is perhaps not by accident that the first rulers of al-Andalus were Umayyads from Damascus, a cosmopolitan city with its multiplicity of ethnic and religious groups. Who better than a Damascene to communicate with and engage the Christian and Jewish communities of the Iberian peninsula.

  • Note: Another book of interest on the same topic: Shadows of the Pomegranate Tree. Another carefully researched work of historical fiction by Tariq Ali, a British, secular, leftist writer of South Asian descent. It is the saga of an Andalusian family in the last years of Moorish Spain. Also of interest from the same author: A Sultan in Palermo, a novel about another civilizational fault line. It is the story of the cartographer al-Idrissi in 12th century in the waning years of Arab Sicily during the Norman conquest.

Friday, June 16, 2006

Syrian Prisoners of Conscience Languish in Jail

My friend Fares reminded me that we need to keep the issue of the plight of Syrian political prisoners in the public eye. It is easy to become complacent and resign oneself to the fact it all seems hopeless. That is exactly what the regime wants and expects of the Syrian people and as long that is the response they get, nothing will ever change. We owe it to these prisoners of conscience and we owe it to the future of our country to keep pushing for their release. Not even a dictatorship is totally immune to the weight of public opinion. So here are some of the latest updates:

  • Bashar justifies the latest round of arrests and imprisonment by saying that the timing of the Damascus-Beirut declaration was inopportune for his purposes.
  • Burhan Ghalioun argues that the arrests reflects the weakness of the regime and will backfire on them. They will not get away with portraying the likes of Anwar el Bunni and Michel Kilo as equivalent to the violent militants of the 1980s. The Syrian people may be subdued but they are not stupid.
  • Arbitrary arrests continue. It seems like every minor (perceived) transgression is treated like high treason.
  • Fateh Jamous, an imprisoned political activist is subjected to beatings and denial of his basic rights as a political prisoner.
  • Lest we forget: Here are a few of Syria's prisoners of conscience: Mahmoud Issa, Michel Kilo, Khalil Hussein, Anwar el Bunni, Ali Abdallah, Mohammed Ali Abdallah, Suleiman Shimri, Nidal Darwish, Safwan Taifu, Mahmoud Merhi, Ghaleb Amer, Kamal Labwani and Mohammed Mahfoud.
  • Not in the limelight but equally important are the young student activists who have been subjected to arbitrary arrests and imprisonment and who should not be forgotten: Ali al Lawali, Ali al Ali, Hussam Melhem, Tarek al Ghorani, Maher Asbar, Alem Fakhour, Abham Safr, Omar al Abdallah and Diab Serieh.

(Photo: A.K.)

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

The NSF Threw a Party and Nobody Came

What was most telling about the recent National Salvation Front meeting in London was not so much who was present and what was said, but who was absent.

What was
said was nothing that hadn't been articulated in previous meetings. When asked how they plan to achieve the Front's laudable goals, things get a little murky. Yes they want to change the incorrigible regime but they want to do it without the interference of foreign governments and without resorting to violence and hint vaguely of allies within Syria ready to effect the changeover. Has the NSF found some magic formula that has eluded everyone else? If they can pull this off, I will -maybe- forgive Khaddam, the neo-democrat, his past sins.

What was absent from the meeting was substantial
media coverage. Syria is, after all, in the cross hairs of the United States, a bona fide member of the Axis of evil and here is a group plotting to overthrow the offending regime. You would think every major and minor media outlet would be there to cover this momentous event. Did the NSF bungle this opportunity to turn the heat on Bashar and forget to invite the media? Or has the international media lost interest? Unfortunately, I think it is the latter. A quick Google search showed few entries related to the meeting. With Iraq burning next door and with no -as of yet- viable opposition to Bashar, Syria has fallen to the bottom of the West's to do list.

Meanwhile, the Assad dynasty having escaped yet another close call continues to celebrate by throwing more of its citizens in jail. This time it is courageous individuals from
Suwayda who dared sign a petition condemning the recent arrests of activists who signed the Beirut-Damascus declaration.

I sure hope Brammertz has a couple of tricks up his sleeve.