"Races petrified in dogma or demoralized by lucre are unfit to lead civilization. Genuflection before the idol or the dollar atrophies the muscle which moves and the will which goes. Hieratic or mercantile absorption diminishes the radiance of a people, lowers its horizon by lowering its level, and deprives it of that intelligence of the universal aim, at the same time human and divine, which makes the missionary nations. Babylon has no ideal. Carthage has no ideal. Athens and Rome have and preserve, even through all the dense night of centuries, haloes of civilization." Victor HugoThe center of the ancient world was the Mediterranean basin. Around it civilizations sprang a galore. Only few of these civilizations left their mark on human march. Though the Mediterranean constituted one geographical area, the imaginary axis that splits the world into two big conglomerate cultural spheres runs somewhere through it also. East and West, as Rudyard Kipling (1865-1936), one of the great Victorian bards of the Empire on which the sun never set, memorialized them in one of the most controversial and also perhaps the truest verses in modern literature: "Oh, East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet." The blatant provocation of the verse has kept it, somewhere between light and dark, in the shadows. Hence whatever truthfulness and profundity the verse contained were also relegated into the shade of the misty fogs ideological parsings of controversial art usually generates. How so? Let's start from the West which is more accessible and lends itself to easier and better analysis than the mystical and mysterious East.
If there's one particular trait to which can be attributed the success of the West is its ability to make history and live in it. Except for a relative short interlude of the dominance of the Church, the west has always looked to humans as the main agents of history. A consciousness of history and an awareness of man's position in the overall scheme of things is at the bottom of its being made. That's humans' ability to pan the horizon and look both ways ahead and backward simultaneously. To have imagination and to hover above time and space is what gave the West the abundance of experiences and acuteness of sight. Being human is also being critical of everything: of oneself, of history, of God, etc. Intelligence, as the accumulated sum of failures and successes, is what distinguished humans from dumb beasts. Only as human centered universe would allow such a vision and will give the power and confidence to humans to question its foundations and premises. To do that one has to live in the world and be outside of it simultaneously. As Archimedes had put it quite succinctly many, many moons ago "Give me a place to stand on, and I will move the Earth." Though the saying referred to a quite different context from what's dealt with here, the implications nonetheless remain valid to human interactions too. A culture, qua civilization, which contains within the germs of its renewal, that's, its own critical self-evaluations are bound to keep with the vicissitude of time. When it's also fed from multiple tributaries then it's bound to be more robust and richer. And when it leaves also room for comparison, both intrinsic and extrinsic, with its past and its competitors, then it comes close to spirit of that mythical bird, Phoenix. The seeds of rebirth and renewal would always come to the rescue in times of crisis to redress it and give it enough oomph to pursue its mission. Add to that, a culture which has basis in human reasoning is bound to be susceptible to human logic and critique.
No system in Nature or human-made is self-referential. Only the 3-monotheistic Religions claimed so, in taking an abstract entity beyond human imagination or reach as the foundation and ultimate referential point. Science and human history tell us a closed system, sooner or later, prone to stagnation and atrophy. A system's life and vibrancy are dependent on the amount of feedbacks. Often the feedbacks come from outside of it. Archimedes's Lever principle "Give me a place to stand on, and I will move the Earth," among its many suggestions, could be read the need for an outside point from which to have a look back on the system at hand. Furthermore, Einstein's relativity of time-space binomial had dismantled the Newtonian absolutistic world and thus gave further proof and support to the changing nature of everything. Darwin's tracing of life to a single beginning and its continuous evolution added another nail in the coffin of those who still claim 6,000 + year- old Religions' creation story.
East and West remained, for most of the human history mere signposts and a not well defined geographical designations. If the extremes were better pointed to, the starting lines were not as clear and were depending on which civilization was making the designations. These extremes were North Western Europe on one side and China on the other. The rest had been floating in between and could and indeed, was gone one way or the other in the course of history. Occident and Orient went from imaginary constructions to lethal contests as the interests between the two sides diverged. Thus according to the late Edward Said, "Orientalism" was born as the ideological cover, if not justifications and overtones, to quite baneful and shameful practices. With the rise of the modern nation-state, capitalism, and the 'discovery' of the Western hemisphere did the West try to build cultural boundaries by seeking to differentiate itself qualitatively from the rest of the world. To feed the frenzy of expansion, and indeed to find motivations, if not justifications, for their relentless push to settle and to use other parts of the world, the West had downgraded societies and cultures encountered in their way. The Industrial Revolution intensified the search for natural resources and markets, and with the ideological classifications in place, the campaign to direct colonization and looting was launched in a good part of the East, if not all of it. Since at least the 18th century the East became, in the eyes of the new masters of the universe, more than a designation to parts of the globe, but a locus of decrepit and decadent humanity in need of a rescue. "The White Man's Burden" became the marching order under which swarms of Western armies, preachers and salesmen went around the globe "to civilize the rogue and tame the savage!"
The question: What made the West so vibrant and Dynamic? One of the salient features and perhaps the most fortunate historical accident that befell the West was its coming to the dogmatic Religious experience quite late in its historical journey. The West had started its civilization with the Greek beginnings, in philosophy, the polis, and the city-state! Onto the Roman prowess and its mythical organizational skills, before Christianity had knocked on its doors. A thousand-year experience in a civilization relatively free from the absolutistic dictates of the Semitic God of the desert! During that long interlude many of the fundamental pillars to Western thought had been elaborated. From "Man as the measure to all things,"all the ways up, to Reason as the mainstay to Logos. Thus Christianity overlapped upon a set of premises and challenged a mode of existence that were well-framed and intensively lived. Religion was only the latest layer to superimpose itself on the many other layers of a millennial culture. Christianity came as a correction to an already traced path. Western civilization, qua culture, had already elaborated what it is to be a man as well as what it's to be a society through Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, etc. All Christianity had asked for was to sublimate some of these pillars and inextricably tied them down to a higher order in the universe than what the old foundational truths were premised on. Logos became subordinate to Theos, as in the New Testament's injunction: "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God."
The West, having such a rich repertoire of civilizational references, subjected Christianity, though hesitantly, to the lenses and sieves of Greek philosophical rationalism. The West took a Semitic Religion and indigenized it. They gave it a Western tone, tune, and melody. Instead of accepting Religion's absolute dominance of the culture, the West adapted Christianity to its past memory and grafted it on its institutions. This ability to step out, from time to time, of its habitually imposed stockade to reach out to that collective memory and subject whatever at hand to its millennial categorical imperatives was (is) an advantage only the West is lucky enough to have. To step out -of the culturally constructed universe (box) of existence- and to shed a glance both ways, was and still is the most informative action and a heuristic tool the West has on its side and is going on its ways!
Leaving aside China (the true Orient), which had similar though qualitatively different history as the West with its multi-millennial civilizational experience, the Near East, the so-called "cradle of civilization," the historical locus of the contemporary Middle East, had come to what Karl Jaspers referred to as the Axial Age Religions with very little, if any, accumulated historical baggage! Poor in resources, cut off from its civilizational experiences, the East had walked into the juggernaut of the new wholistic systems with no protective shields, so to speak. The Middle East was the locus where God, the monotheistic God of Abraham had found an - and it seems a permanent- abode from which He moves and shakes human history as the central hero does. Since then, its autochthonous civilizations, subsumed under various religions, nonetheless, have skewed any autonomous definitions -outside of God- of Man, Life, and their interrelationship with Nature. Their cultures became the other Janus-face of Religions - mostly elaborations and embellishments to them- until they submerged synonymously with them; and, which, scarcely had left any room for humans to define their positions vis-a-vis God, life, and the Universe. The scarcity of resources had limited human interaction with nature, which, never exceeded the level of subsistence and so the inherited repertoire of nature's manipulations was limited too. The same fate befell the human cognitive skills or human self-assertiveness. Humans' awareness of themselves as individuals worthy of respect in these civilizations were ciphers, nil, zilch. Mere drones and beasts of burden! They remained marginal accessories to the main Hero, whether Pharaoh, God or His shadow on earth. A culture without a philosophy worth mentioning nor epic tales -beside Gilgamish nor institutions of daily life (beside the Temple, such as: agora, theater, gymnasium, stadium, academy, etc.), only the worship of heroes, be God or humans, had deprived these clusters of humans from having some understanding of what's rational, what's ethical, and what's religious. The result was, these societies lived roaming the deserts and floating in some sort of a tabula rasa when more dogmatic and absolutistic Creeds met their caravans. Having very little preexistent lore gave monotheistic Religions ample room to dominate and to define every aspect of life, down to the minimum details.
These societies having had no memories to speak of, to refer to in times of crisis, made these populations vulnerable to the dictates of the latest Religion. Without mythologies to refresh their memories, no arts to enrich their vision, and no institutions to take refuge in. There were held captives, so to speak, to the latest dogma which succeeded to dominate and thus defined their world view. For instance, Islam's meager heirloom inheritance was contemptuously treated and hastily buried, without a fanfare, under the "Age of Ignorance" grave marker. Thus Arab tribes, in particular, had no other recourse than what Islam dictated. Reduced to its bare-bone, Arab culture, started with genetic deformities. Stripped off its heritage and without an independent view point nor an autonomous vintage from which to look back and forth, critically, Arab culture had gone into deep sleep, coma, and total stagnation. This cultural structural weakness has not been overcome nor corrected until our days. Even in its haydays, the so-called Islamic culture, operated without the help of reason or the props which Avicenna (Ibn Sina) and Averroes (Ibn Rushd) had attempted to inject into it. That little bit of Reason from Greek philosophy, hadn't suited the establishment and so al-Ghazali made sure reason will never contaminate what he God-dictated-Ulamas-concurred-people-accepted defined as the appropriate system of thought.
Islam, in basing its doctrine, not on inspired, but literally on dictated words of God, the Qu`ran, had taken history out of human reach and put it beyond their imagination. Everything is willed and directed by God, humans have only to execute His commandments. God dictated the names of things to Adam. Devil's protest to Adam's modest beginnings was the banes to him. Adam & Eve disobeyed the orders so there were banished from Heaven. Cain got jealous and murdered his Cain so death became human's fate. Humans were emboldened so the Universal Deluge as a new beginning. Abraham ordered to slaughter his son and build him -with his mother- a "house" in a barren valley. Prophets were carriers of instructions to humans to live by; and, which, He kept editing and updating through the ages, until the last Prophet! Et cetera, etc.... Where and what is the role of humans? Zombies performing on a large stage a script which they'd not written? They've to obey and wait to know how they fared only after departing this world. History thus became subservient to piety not human actions. Piety and worship of God are the only demands made on humans! These didn't need social interactions. Individuals, clans and tribes would do. And that's precisely where the misnomored "community of believers" still remains!
Throughout most of its history, Islam, in presenting itself as the one and only system of life, had been short on what counts, in the overall scheme of things, the production of the tangible embodiments to civilization: institutions! As an iconoclastic system, Islam destroyed whatever found in its way of the preexisting cultures and institutions, and had substituted them with the all encompassing quasi an omni-institution, the mosque, which, has acted as both a house of worship and an assembly hall. The baring of culture from its multi-sources and its reduction to almost pure exegesis, commentary, and metaphysical speculations, had impoverished it, if not atrophied it since then. Without the past and its collective memories and without visual and performing arts no culture can grow, let alone renews itself! As if the hegemony of the Church, during the European Dark Ages, was accepted in the land of Islam as the standard modus operandi. The result Arabs today, and their culture, have few tears than reasons to weep. History, for them, has become as useless labor as to offer light to the blind, or words to the deaf, or science to the ignorant, or honor to the rulers. With no agreed upon rules for the game of politics, that's no social contracts, and without functioning economies to speak of, Arabs are literally caught in the limbo of Dante's Purgatory! Poor, illiterates, and dependent. Just to give an idea of how abysmal the Arab situation is: The 300+ million collectively GDP -without the oil revenues- is less than that of the 5-million Finns -with one big company Nokia! Taken all together, including oil revenues, the total GDP of the Arab states is less than half of that of the state of California and its 30+ million hardworking inhabitants. The GDP of the 57 states constituting the Islamic Conference is less that of Germany with only 83 million people!
Today's task is how to correct the course of the lost ship when there's no compass on board nor reference points outside. How to resolve one of the most intriguing conundrums any society has ever faced, that's how to open a closed culture? What's facing the Arab world is one of the most critical and deterministic moving toward history. To do so, humans have to replace God as the true and effective working agents of history. Only as human-centered world would have the ability to set clear norms and rules, of duties and responsibilities, and the way(s) to be held accounted for them. It's a world in which the rules of the game are set, continuously debated, and frequently changed to meet the players' expectations.