The rise and fall of Islamic civilizations

The ebb and flow of tides of tyranny is a phenomenon repeated throughout the ages. The Islamist wave sweeping today's world is also nothing the world hasn't seen before. The only question is, will the world heed history's lessons?

June 10, 2011 09:08
3 minute read.
REGIONAL TURMOIL. A map of countries in upheaval

Arab Unrest Map 311. (photo credit: Courtesy)


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The celebrated Muslim sociologist and historian, Ibn Khaldun, who lived a short time after the fundamentalist Muslim Berber dynasties of North Africa (the Almoravids and the Almohads, 11th -13th centuries), documented the rise and fall of civilizations. His characterizations (especially those that concern the Berbers’ short-lived, revolutionary, xenophobic, intolerant and cruel rule) share many similarities with some of today’s radical Muslim groups.

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Their systems began with mass movements, led by charismatic leaders who were also religious preachers (da’i), moved by an esprit de corps or tribalism (asabiyya – the closest modern-day translation being “nationalism”), which took three generations until it began to erode. The movement grew clumsy and fat, more urban than rural, and moved from being ascetic to gluttonous, until eventually a new challenger emerged and the cycle of change began again.

Today’s world bears witness to radical Muslim regimes (such as Iran, Turkey and Taliban Afghanistan) and Muslim fundamentalist movements (the Taliban, al-Qa’ida, Hamas and Hizbullah among others) that espouse the same values.

They all apply strict shari’a law and are led by charismatic leaders that combine military training and weapons usage with religious indoctrination, lending primacy to the hereafter over a life of corruption and debauchery in the present world. Today, they also embrace an anti-Western and anti-Semitic ideology. Like their medieval antecedents, they recruit followers (under the Almohads they were called tolba, now known as Taliban) to educate an entire generation about the virtues of jihad and self-sacrifice.

The turbulence that is sweeping the contemporary Muslim world and threatening to push it beyond the pale of civilization is therefore nothing new. The world stage is dogged by the repetitive cycle of “purification” movements which evince outbursts of extreme violence, hatred, anti-Semitism, aggression and radicalism. These movements either coerce states into untenable systems of horrors (Iran, Afghanistan), or challenge existing non-Islamic regimes (Egypt, Pakistan, Yemen). Even Turkey, which was distanced from this cycle through Turkey’s first president Mustafa Kemel Ataturk’s forced secularization, eventually reverted back to the old Muslim pattern with the advent of Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s thuggish regime some 80 years later.

Historically, Jews have actually fared better under Islam than in the West. The Arab world’s transient medieval dynasties were marginally kinder to the Jews than Europe’s Christendom which saw Jews expelled, persecuted, massacred and despised. However, while the latter underwent a process of emancipation, separating religion from state and allowing equal rights for everyone – including the Jews, the emancipation of Islamic states may never occur – despite the Arab Spring’s best efforts.

And while the Jews live in their own democratic state, the Muslim world is again sinking in a cycle of poverty, bigotry, ill-rule, hatred and consecration of death. Yet to date, the “enlightened” West has chosen to ignore the lessons that history has taught the world. Do they not realize that the current wave of turbulence will be buried under the tide of self-destruction that underlies it – as has happened so many times before? So that instead of standing side by side with Israel and forming a united front against the Muslim world’s besiege on western values, the West chooses to join the Muslim cause by boycotting the one country in the region that treasures those values as much as it does.

The writer is a professor of Islamic, Middle Eastern and Chinese history at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem  and a member of the steering committee of the Ariel Center for Policy Research.

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