Monday, September 24, 2012


The Louvre Museum has opened its new wing of Islamic art. This is a welcome window at a time when, unfortunately, the Arab world looks more often like a depository of fury rather than creativity. We also too often tend to let the current toxic political narrative obscure the cultural input of the Arabs, who made extraordinary inroads in fields as diverse as mathematics, science, architecture, medicine and philosophy.

The West is guilty of having created an Orientalist vision for its own purposes.  Edward W. Said wrote a very disturbing book in this regard. The Arabs, for their part, never had the courage to confront their beliefs in a Kantian fashion. The Koran is set in stone and any attempt to replace a text in its context is considered blasphemous by the majority of Muslims. The book became a wall.  It did not have to be like that. At times there have been periods of creativity, tolerance and pluralism. The Omayyad Caliphate, inter alia, illustrates very well that there can be room for original creation instead of rehashing.  Fouad Adjami has written a moving account of this "strand" in his book "The Dream Palace of the Arabs".  Unfortunately, the theories of Bernard Lewis seem to prevail today and on almost all fronts mutual distrust and loathing prevail.

Responsibilities for this derailment can be found in both camps. A secular West cannot understand how the Muslims let their religion be hijacked and dyed in negative, dark and spooky terms, in Jihad, Fatwas and inequalities. For its part, the West has certainly done too little to come forward with creative thinking regarding the Palestinian issue, which is becoming a menacing metastasis.  Besides, the World War I territorial arrangements imposed upon the Arabs were more "flippant" than legitimate.

The main problem today, underpinning all others, might be the absence of alternative in the Arab world.  How can intellectual knowledge and scholarship thrive under a Wahhabi's stream of thought?  Arab intellectuals are obliged to consult Western sources, while (as Said observes) the converse is seldom true. As a result, there is a
self-loathing and complex of inferiority amongst many Muslims which can catch fire at random. The Arab spring is already turning sour, in the absence of an Arab Mandela, Havel or Aung San Sun Kyi.  Meanwhile Islam, which was not incompatible with beauty, innovation and tolerance, is taken hostage by radicals who are manipulating the masses from Bangladesh to Indonesia.

It would be tragic if yet again we would have to count upon ourselves to try to decipher a legacy of otherness which fascinates us in the Metropolitan Museum or the Louvre. The Arab world looks too often like a negative component in a world which seeks to avoid a deathtrap on its path to globalization.  If Arab leaders choose to remain the keepers of minds and souls of their own, so be it.  The consequences will be dire. The West, too, must act and support "actively" a two-state solution for the Palestinians,if it wants to quell the irrational killing wave which engulfs so much of the Arab world.

I realize that the current times are not an ideal launching platform for speculative thinking or artistic enlightenment. At the end of the day, the choice will have to be made by the Arabs themselves, either "in favour of being part of," or to end up in a mono-coloured barren mental and political landscape of their own making. They gave us algebra.  We might return the favour by encouraging them to question rather than be content to follow. They might find pride in connecting with past achievements and regain the self-esteem which is needed to facilitate the consideration of major decisions.  Art is not a frivolous passe-temps for the few, it is the collective memory of all, and an alternative which can finally be helpful in resetting events in a more positive mode.  If one had to choose between Persian miniatures or the collective utterances of President Ahmedinadjad, the outcome is predictable.

No comments:

Post a Comment