Several weeks ago an op-ed by the Norwegian scholar Alexandra Irene Larsen was translated into English and posted here at Gates of Vienna. The cultural watchdogs of the Norwegian Left thereupon then descended on the author, using our approval as an opportunity to discredit her. The assault was led by the notorious wannabe terrorist Lars Gule.
Not one to shrink from controversy, Ms. Larsen has now written a reply to the criticism she received back then, penning a brilliant op-ed that was published in the printed version of Klassekampen on Saturday and online at Minervanett.no (a conservative website). At the risk of driving her deeper into the cultural quicksand into which she has wandered, it must be observed that Alexandra Irene Larsen sounds very much like the contributors and readers of this blog, at least when the topic in question is Islam.
Our Norwegian correspondent The Observer, who translated the essay, has this to say about it:
This piece is sure to ruffle some feathers in the Oslamabad duck pond. I actually translated an article for Gates of Vienna a couple of years ago which highlights the exact same bias that Ms. Larsen describes in this piece.
It seems that anything that has to do with Islam and Arabic culture is glorified, and anything that has to do with Western culture is vilified.
The legacy of Edward Said
Bjørn Olav Utvik and Knut Vikør represents a branch of academia that romanticizes Islam and the Arabic Middle Ages
By Alexandra Irene Larsen
On February 7, 2013, I attended a seminar on leftwing extremism at the House of Literature in Oslo where I gave a speech about Middle Eastern studies and how over the years, due to the legacy of Edward Said, these studies have adopted a left-wing political bias which has been quite noticeable.
Anti-imperialism, anti-Americanism and third-world romanticism — these trivialize the authoritarian traits of Islamism. Islamism and other radical non-Western movements are presented as liberation movements and as legitimate responses to the misconduct of the West. It has to be pointed out that I do not believe that this romanticism is limited only to Middle Eastern scholars — of course it isn’t. There are probably a multitude of reasons behind the beautification process of the Arab civilization which some scholars have decided to undertake. I have gone through the criticism of Middle Eastern Studies in more detail in my contribution to the book Left-Wing Extremism (editors: Sørensen, Hagtvet and Brandal).
I will focus on a couple of quotes from two scholars, Bjørn Olav Utvik and Knut Vikør, in which they use highly tendentious language, commit gross errors, mythologize and exhibit a lack of precision.
It’s not just the authoritarian tendencies of Islamism that are frequently downplayed in academia; the myth of the luminous and tolerant Arab Middle Ages is alive and very common. I’m not too familiar with Vikør’s background, so I’m not going to position him on the political Left, but merely point out that he is participating in a trend of romantic interpretation.
Utvik has written that Sharia law is “more broad-minded’ than what used to be the norm in Christian Europe, a statement that he defended at the aforementioned seminar at the House of Literature:
“Sharia is quite clearly non-racist. When it was codified in the seventh and eighth century, based on our calendar, it was at the forefront of judicial thinking, in the sense that while only free Muslim men were bestowed full rights, Islamic law also bestowed rights to slaves, women and practitioners of other religions. On all these points Sharia law was far more broad-minded than the norm in Christian Europe at the time.” (Utvik “The rebellion of the others. Islamism – liberation or a reactionary dead-end?” 1994 p. 34).
Such controversial claims must be substantiated. What specific conditions, laws and regulations does Utvik refer to which were more benign for women, slaves and religious minorities in the Arab countries? Non-racist in the true sense, yes perhaps if one chooses to ignore the discrimination against Jews, just to mention one particular example.
But Islamic law by its very nature is discriminatory and hierarchical. The three basic hierarchical dichotomies of Islam that have gone unchallenged throughout history are: male — female; master — slave; believer — non-believer. Utvik’s statement is a sweeping generalization that gives a completely incorrect picture of the reality.
The position of women
Let’s take a look at the position of women first. Even though the sources from pre-Islamic times are limited, it seems that the position of women was far better in the times before Muhammad, contrary to the assertions of Utvik. Firstly, there are clear signs that indicate that it was Muhammad who decreed that women should cover up — as described in the story of Aisha in the desert by Ibn Ishaq (d. 761/767) which supports this theory — and which in many ways was a major setback for women in the Arab world; a person without a face is a person without full rights and a person who doesn’t fully participate in society. In addition to Ibn Ishaq’s accounts, the historian al-Waqidi (d. 822) and al-Tabari (d. 923) write of events that would tend to suggests that the practice of veiling a woman’s face didn’t exist before the arrival of Muhammad.
Secondly, Muhammad waged a much more brutal form of warfare than his predecessors. The slaughter of tribes and the barbaric wars that took place during his reign weren’t common in Arab countries before that time. Muhammad wanted to expand his empire, conquer new and larger areas. This led to a shortage of men, which again probably led to practice of polygamy, a claim which is backed up by chapter 4, verse 3 in the Koran. It is claimed that polygamy existed even before Muhammad, but there are no reliable sources that support this contentious assertion, an assertion which Montgomery Watt investigates in his book Muhammad at Medina. Besides, when Muhammad sanctioned polygamy in divine terms it was given a completely different aura and legitimacy than was the case in pre-Islamic times, when polygamy had only been practiced sporadically. A woman’s position was thus weakened even further. Her primary responsibility was to give birth to several children, to give birth to new warriors.
One could say that marriage became a sacred institution with Christianity, but the fact that it became increasingly difficult to get a divorce applied to both sexes, and it cannot therefore be regarded as discrimination against women. In pre-Christian times in the West a woman could get a divorce if she was mistreated. In the Sharia a woman’s right to a divorce has been absent or greatly limited even up until today. Forced and arranged marriages also occurred in the West in the Middle Ages, but by giving away his daughter Fatima in marriage to his cousin Ali, Muhammad made this a religious ideal which then became sanctioned and promoted in the Sharia. In Islam, to prohibit what God permits have always been just as taboo as to allow what God forbids.
A woman’s position as an inferior person to that of a man, as his property, became more and more ingrained in the Sharia. How this equates to a “more broad-minded” position for women in Arab countries compared to the West is hard to understand.
As Gro Steinsland emphasizes in her book Norrøn religion: myter, riter, samfunn (2005) (“Norse religion: myths, rites, society”) there also existed major differences in Western and Arab pre-modern societies concerning honor and shame, which subsequently meant that women were treated differently.
If the clan had been humiliated in the Nordic countries, it could not regain its honour by laying hands on a woman. The man who injured or killed a woman was considered a niding, an honourless person. A man who carried a weapon exacted his revenge on another man carrying a weapon, the direct opposite of the tradition of sharia, where a woman carries the family’s honour and has to be punished or killed if the family’s honour is deemed to have been violated.
In the Roman Empire a woman was perhaps not given the opportunity to participate directly in political life, but she took part in a variety of other spheres. A wife was also entitled to the dowry she brought with her into a marriage upon divorce. The position of women has simply been freer in the West than in Arab countries, and women have been more equal to men, and this was also the case in the eighth century. This has probably also had an impact on the development of the respective cultures.
This was something that Bernard Lewis emphasized in his book What Went Wrong?: Western Impact and Middle Eastern Response. In the 1500 and 1600’s one could observe women in the streets of western nations. They participated in the community and in many ways they helped to shape the society. If, however, one visited the Arab world during the same period, women were nowhere to be seen in the public sphere. They were hidden away and did not appear on the streets. How is it possible to modernize and create progress in societies where half the population is being held down?
In pre-Christian societies, women and men weren’t equal by today’s standards, but we find a strong sense of egalitarianism between the free man and the free woman. Steinsland points out that the position of women in pre-Christian Europe was actually stronger than it is in many societies in the Middle East today.
Due to space restrictions we cannot discuss the position of slaves and religious minorities in the East and the West, but concerning religious minorities, Jews were discriminated against in the Christian states, yet they were tolerated. It that regard the situation for religious minorities may have resembled sharia at the time, but there is no evidence to suggest that the situation was any worse for religious minorities in the West. The Carolingians were known for their relatively Jew-friendly policies, and here we’re talking about the most dominant Western European state formation of the eighth and ninth centuries (Wickham 2006).
According to Lewis it was free Muslim men who had rights. The slave, the woman and the non-believers were subject to strict legal and social restrictions that affected them in virtually every aspect of their daily life. The discrimination was considered an inseparable part of Islam’s core, inspired by the actions of the prophet and classical Islamic writings.
The widespread slavery in Arab countries, which also included white slaves, is described by Robert C. Davis in his book, Christian Slaves, Muslim Masters: White Slavery in the Mediterranean, the Barbary Coast, and Italy, 1500-1800. This slavery was institutionalized through the teachings of the sharia, although slaves were granted some rights.
Neither is stoning as a method of punishment contrary to sharia. While Western culture through reformation and modernization has become a free and equal society, we are able to see that Islam and sharia have contributed to the stagnation that Arab culture has been plagued by over the last thousand years, not least when it comes to the position of women.
Knut Vikør’s understanding of history and his ability to analyze cultures are well documented in the book Ei verd bygd på islam (“A world built on Islam”). He writes:
“Up until about the year 1800, the Islamic world had lived safe in the knowledge that their world was the cultural center […] and they were for the most part correct, the Islamic world was the greatest culture alongside China. Non-Islamic Europe was a barbaric periphery, and what they knew they had largely learned from the Arabs. Even their own ‘Western heritage’ from their own continent, Greece and Rome, came to them in the form of Arabic translations.” (Vikør, Ei verd bygd på islam, p 230).
Such myths are the creation of erroneous teachings that have been allowed to take root in academia. Here almost everything is wrong, except for the fact that the Arabs probably believed that they lived in the cultural center of the world. One can almost sense the contempt of the West written between the lines, the West is “a barbaric fringe continent” and “Western heritage” is even written in quotation marks almost as if it were a joke compared to the Arabic heritage. There are also very few footnotes in the book. The above quote lacks a references; Vikør writes as if it were the undisputed truth.
One can argue that the Arab Middle Ages functioned well in some aspects; Arab culture functioned well as a warrior society and as a religious society. But precisely because of the divinely institutionalized rules that oppressed women and failed to differentiate between secular and religious power, the Arab and Muslim culture had problems with the transition to the modern age. The stagnation could of course largely be due to Islam itself, and not necessarily to Western imperialism as so many Western academics wanted it to be. No lid was placed over the Arab Middle Ages and which prevented them from developing their own societies on cultural and social levels.
The alleged Arab handover of Western heritage is nothing but a myth that the universities should stop teaching. Reynolds and Wilson’s book Scribes and Scholars: A Guide to the Transmission of Greek and Latin Literature is the standard presentation of the text handover, and it is a book that Vikør cannot possibly have read.
The Greeks texts were written in Greek, although some of them also existed in Arabic translations. Latin was translated virtually not at all by the Arabs, and thus Latin literature was never translated into Arabic. The Arabs didn’t know Greek or Latin, and they never developed the interest in foreign cultures that we find here in the West, as Remi Brague describes in The Legend of the Middle Ages: Philosophical Explorations of Medieval Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, and Bernard Lewis writes about in his book What Went Wrong?: Western Impact and Middle Eastern Response.
What the Arabs knew they had mostly learnt from the Greeks. In the 1800s — which is the period that Vikør refers to here — the Arabs still operated using Greek paradigms in medicine, astronomy, and in the little they possessed of philosophy. Not very much happened in Arabic philosophy after Averroes, and Arabic science pretty much stagnated at the same time. Toby Huff writes about this in his book The Rise of Early Modern Science: Islam, China and the West.
The ancient universities in the Arab countries were largely Koran schools, without professorship in language, literature or philosophy, and to an even lesser extent in natural sciences and mathematics. Vikør claims that the Arabic and Chinese cultures were superior — and he uses the word “culture” as loosely as Utvik speaks of “rights” — but at the start of the 17th century, the Chinese court invited Jesuit missionaries because they were superior as astronomers, having among other things developed the telescope. At the same time the Turks in Constantinople had closed down their newly completed observatory largely due to religious opposition, something which Huff also mentions.
And as Gjert Vestrheim writes in Levende Historie (7/2011), (“Living History”) Arabic science enjoyed an enormous respect, and the new translations were frequently updated with commentary so the translated versions were often preferred. Vestrheim however also points out that by the time of the Renaissance a few hundred years later scholars decided to return to the Greek and Latin sources. The Latin texts were preserved in Western monastic libraries, and the Greek texts were preserved in the Byzantine Empire. It is therefore incorrect to claim that it was the Arabs who saved Greek heritage. It was the Greeks themselves who saved it.
What cultural traits does Vikør perceive to be so superior in Arab countries at the time? Painted art perhaps? When it comes to discoveries, shipping, printing, shipping, astronomy, etc., the West was miles ahead of Arab culture. And I don’t believe that it would ever happen in Western academia that someone would refer to a non-Western culture as a “barbaric fringe culture”. In a way, however, it just shows how strong a grip this reverse Orientalism has on the Western academy. One thing that we can safely conclude is that we have witnessed a long and extensive tradition of romanticizing Arab culture and Islam in academia.
An abbreviated version of this article is published in today’s edition of Klassekampen (“Class Struggle”).