The Collapse of Arab Civilization?

Five years ago, Lt. Col James G. Lacey published the article "The Impending Collapse of Arab Civilization" in The Naval Institute: Proceedings." He disputed the conclusions of two books which have particularly influenced recent foreign policy and grand strategy: The Crisis of Islam: Holy War and Unholy Terror, by Bernard Lewis, and The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order by Samuel P. Huntington.

In his article, he stated:

A more accurate understanding of events leads to the conclusion that Arab, not Muslim, civilization is in a state of collapse, and it just happens that most Arabs are Muslims. In this regard, the fall of the Western Roman Empire was a collapse of Western Europe and not a crisis of Christianity.

His thesis was that while Islam itself continues to grow and thrive around the world (and indeed, is continuing to make swift inroads into Western states), it has been specifically in the Arab world where one has seen the turmoil of civilization in decay.

He has not been alone. Azmi Bishara wrote in 2003, in Al-Ahram Weekly (Cairo):

The Arabs ... are in a double state of decay that boggles the minds even of those who expected a hot summer of post-war decadence ... The [Arab] nation will be split between those who dance to the beat of scandal and defeat, and those who blow themselves up in what is turning into a deafening religious ritual.

Writing for the Wall Street Journal, Fouad Ajami began his article Autocracy and the Decline of the Arabs with this strangely foretelling account:

"It made me feel so jealous," said Abdulmonem Ibrahim, a young Egyptian political activist, of the recent upheaval in Iran. "We are amazed at the organization and speed with which the Iranian movement has been functioning. In Egypt you can count the number of activists on your hand." This degree of "Iran envy" is a telling statement on the stagnation of Arab politics. It is not pretty, Iran's upheaval, but grant the Iranians their due: They have gone out into the streets to contest the writ of the theocrats.

Now, Mubarak has been deposed, but the question we all are asking is this: "In the final analysis, was this indeed victory for the people of Egypt, or a victory for radical Islamists?"

The Collapse of a Civilization?

Recent unrest in the Arab world exposes the discontent among the people that has been building for decades. But is this something larger and more profound than a series of uprisings? Now that the historic seat of Arab culture and power has been upended, does this indicate a renewal or decay of the civilization as a whole? Col. Lacey predicted the upheaval of current days, and made the case for these events being the harbinger for the historical end of the Arab world. This remains a monumental claim, and Lacey recognized the incredulity with which such a claim would be met.

The next question is, how could the world have missed an entire civilization collapsing before its eyes? The simple answer is that no one alive today has ever seen it happen before. Well within living memory we have seen empires collapse and nation-state failure has become a regular occurrence, but no one in the West has witnessed the collapse of a civilization since the Dark Ages. Civilizational collapses take a long time to unfold and are easy to miss in the welter of daily events.

The seeds of such a collapse, if that is what we are seeing take place, might well have been sown 600 years ago, according to Lacey, with the dawning of the Renaissance throughout Western Europe. However, one can make the case that the fate of Arab civilization was set two centuries earlier, with the exile of Ibn Rushd (western name of Averroes).

Different Paths

At a time when western philosophers were actively wrestling with many questions of ontology (what is) and epistemology (how we know), the Arab Caliphs and their chosen scholars handled philosophical disputes as they always had: with charges of infidelity to scripture, and sentences of prison, exile, or death. Ibn Rushd disputed the dominant thinking of Al-Ghazali (1059-1111), and followed more in the tradition of Ibn Sina, an 11th century Persian Islamic philosopher. Yousif Fajr Raslan writes:

Set back by the blind resistance of the Caliph's scholars, Ibn Rushd turned to Greek philosophy where he found his ideal in Aristotle...He applied rational reasoning to theology, an approach that further stirred his colleagues against him and against philosophy as a whole, not to mention their particular hatred of Greek philosophers.

Ibn Rushd was banished, putting an effective end to any hope of philosophical renewal and introduction of historically based rationality into the Arab culture.

Western philosophy traversed the Renaissance and periods of Empiricism and developed the "Scientific Method." Western thinkers, from Thomas Aquinas on, wrestled with the relationship between the metaphysical and the physical, along with issues of authority and the search for truth. Both Christian and secular Enlightenment scholars introduced ideas of "natural law," property rights, and the "social contract."

Arab scholarship, in contrast, went on to hold up Ibn Khaldun (1332-1406), born in what is modern Tunisia, as one of their greatest political thinkers. His definition of government as "an institution which prevents injustice other than such as it commits itself" still dominates Arab political thought [emphasis added].

Policy Choices

If Lacey was right, and we are truly witnessing the collapse of Arab civilization as a whole, this does not bode well for the western world. The powers able and ready to fill the void are neither friendly toward, nor passive in their attitude toward, the Western states. What happens in Egypt might well presage what happens in the rest of the Arab world. The key question is this: Has western thought been sufficiently infused within Egypt's people so as to lead to legitimate and lasting democracy? If not, then we will likely see a repeat of 1970s Iran; not only in Egypt, but throughout the entire Arab world

Col. Lacey made the case for dealing with a declining Arab civilization through means very similar to the Cold War: specifically, containment. We have largely followed this grand strategy until recently. Sadly, with our administration's bumbling and weak response to the events in Egypt, we might well have lost our most vital ally in the region, and hence, our ability to reverse a tidal wave of radical Islamic power.

Our only options now are to strengthen relationships with friendly powers in the region, give aid to those who seek freedom and democracy, and prop up the truly free states. It becomes even more imperative that we ensure the continued growth and success of Iraq; more critical still that we contain Iran and minimize their meddling within the affairs of Arab nations.

Nothing about this is easy. A proper understanding of the true nature of turmoil in the Arab states should have led to more proactive measures. It must lead to more clarity in our future strategy in the region. Otherwise, we might well see, within our lifetime, the rise of radical Islam and the crumbling of Arab civilization.
Five years ago, Lt. Col James G. Lacey published the article "The Impending Collapse of Arab Civilization" in The Naval Institute: Proceedings." He disputed the conclusions of two books which have particularly influenced recent foreign policy and grand strategy: The Crisis of Islam: Holy War and Unholy Terror, by Bernard Lewis, and The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order by Samuel P. Huntington.

In his article, he stated:

A more accurate understanding of events leads to the conclusion that Arab, not Muslim, civilization is in a state of collapse, and it just happens that most Arabs are Muslims. In this regard, the fall of the Western Roman Empire was a collapse of Western Europe and not a crisis of Christianity.

His thesis was that while Islam itself continues to grow and thrive around the world (and indeed, is continuing to make swift inroads into Western states), it has been specifically in the Arab world where one has seen the turmoil of civilization in decay.

He has not been alone. Azmi Bishara wrote in 2003, in Al-Ahram Weekly (Cairo):

The Arabs ... are in a double state of decay that boggles the minds even of those who expected a hot summer of post-war decadence ... The [Arab] nation will be split between those who dance to the beat of scandal and defeat, and those who blow themselves up in what is turning into a deafening religious ritual.

Writing for the Wall Street Journal, Fouad Ajami began his article Autocracy and the Decline of the Arabs with this strangely foretelling account:

"It made me feel so jealous," said Abdulmonem Ibrahim, a young Egyptian political activist, of the recent upheaval in Iran. "We are amazed at the organization and speed with which the Iranian movement has been functioning. In Egypt you can count the number of activists on your hand." This degree of "Iran envy" is a telling statement on the stagnation of Arab politics. It is not pretty, Iran's upheaval, but grant the Iranians their due: They have gone out into the streets to contest the writ of the theocrats.

Now, Mubarak has been deposed, but the question we all are asking is this: "In the final analysis, was this indeed victory for the people of Egypt, or a victory for radical Islamists?"

The Collapse of a Civilization?

Recent unrest in the Arab world exposes the discontent among the people that has been building for decades. But is this something larger and more profound than a series of uprisings? Now that the historic seat of Arab culture and power has been upended, does this indicate a renewal or decay of the civilization as a whole? Col. Lacey predicted the upheaval of current days, and made the case for these events being the harbinger for the historical end of the Arab world. This remains a monumental claim, and Lacey recognized the incredulity with which such a claim would be met.

The next question is, how could the world have missed an entire civilization collapsing before its eyes? The simple answer is that no one alive today has ever seen it happen before. Well within living memory we have seen empires collapse and nation-state failure has become a regular occurrence, but no one in the West has witnessed the collapse of a civilization since the Dark Ages. Civilizational collapses take a long time to unfold and are easy to miss in the welter of daily events.

The seeds of such a collapse, if that is what we are seeing take place, might well have been sown 600 years ago, according to Lacey, with the dawning of the Renaissance throughout Western Europe. However, one can make the case that the fate of Arab civilization was set two centuries earlier, with the exile of Ibn Rushd (western name of Averroes).

Different Paths

At a time when western philosophers were actively wrestling with many questions of ontology (what is) and epistemology (how we know), the Arab Caliphs and their chosen scholars handled philosophical disputes as they always had: with charges of infidelity to scripture, and sentences of prison, exile, or death. Ibn Rushd disputed the dominant thinking of Al-Ghazali (1059-1111), and followed more in the tradition of Ibn Sina, an 11th century Persian Islamic philosopher. Yousif Fajr Raslan writes:

Set back by the blind resistance of the Caliph's scholars, Ibn Rushd turned to Greek philosophy where he found his ideal in Aristotle...He applied rational reasoning to theology, an approach that further stirred his colleagues against him and against philosophy as a whole, not to mention their particular hatred of Greek philosophers.

Ibn Rushd was banished, putting an effective end to any hope of philosophical renewal and introduction of historically based rationality into the Arab culture.

Western philosophy traversed the Renaissance and periods of Empiricism and developed the "Scientific Method." Western thinkers, from Thomas Aquinas on, wrestled with the relationship between the metaphysical and the physical, along with issues of authority and the search for truth. Both Christian and secular Enlightenment scholars introduced ideas of "natural law," property rights, and the "social contract."

Arab scholarship, in contrast, went on to hold up Ibn Khaldun (1332-1406), born in what is modern Tunisia, as one of their greatest political thinkers. His definition of government as "an institution which prevents injustice other than such as it commits itself" still dominates Arab political thought [emphasis added].

Policy Choices

If Lacey was right, and we are truly witnessing the collapse of Arab civilization as a whole, this does not bode well for the western world. The powers able and ready to fill the void are neither friendly toward, nor passive in their attitude toward, the Western states. What happens in Egypt might well presage what happens in the rest of the Arab world. The key question is this: Has western thought been sufficiently infused within Egypt's people so as to lead to legitimate and lasting democracy? If not, then we will likely see a repeat of 1970s Iran; not only in Egypt, but throughout the entire Arab world

Col. Lacey made the case for dealing with a declining Arab civilization through means very similar to the Cold War: specifically, containment. We have largely followed this grand strategy until recently. Sadly, with our administration's bumbling and weak response to the events in Egypt, we might well have lost our most vital ally in the region, and hence, our ability to reverse a tidal wave of radical Islamic power.

Our only options now are to strengthen relationships with friendly powers in the region, give aid to those who seek freedom and democracy, and prop up the truly free states. It becomes even more imperative that we ensure the continued growth and success of Iraq; more critical still that we contain Iran and minimize their meddling within the affairs of Arab nations.

Nothing about this is easy. A proper understanding of the true nature of turmoil in the Arab states should have led to more proactive measures. It must lead to more clarity in our future strategy in the region. Otherwise, we might well see, within our lifetime, the rise of radical Islam and the crumbling of Arab civilization.

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