On reading a piece by Jim Al-Khalili in the Guardian on Jan 30, 2008, I was immediately sympathetic to the author’s view but was also struck by the futility and fatality of dealing with this issue, in the context of the dominance of the American-European world view, that the US- Europe are at the centre of world history, and the remaining four-fifths of the globe exist in the shadow of the western enlightenment. While I certainly agree that recognising achievements by the great women and men of the Middle East, or of China or India, is an important task in reconfiguring the power relations in global affairs I wonder whether taking the position that al-Khalili takes actually helps or hinders such a task. More than anything I was disappointed that the debate continues to be framed as Arab/Islamic culture opposed to a European/Christian culture as if they can ever be neatly separated.
From my perspective anyway, thinking not of an Islamic or Arab, nor of European achievements, but of the achievements of the Middle Ages or of the sixteenth century would seem a more effective means of recasting history to account for interconnection and interdependence between different parts of the world. Certainly, this type of approach would promote the idea that the Christian/Islamic dichotomy has never really existed and discourages the “clash of civilizations” versions of politics. Viewing achievements as Islamic is just as problematic as claiming that Europeans developed mathematics, the scientific method, or discovered the Americas. These achievements and the people that were responsible for them were shaped by ideas, traded resources, travellers stories and shared experiences that can never really be limited by reference to Islamic, Arab or European. The constant interaction between the east and west makes it very difficult to speak of Islamic achievements. The tendency to make such claims is as troubling to me as claims of European achievements, as the assumption that follows that knowledge can be claimed by any one nation, or civilization, or religion is very dangerous and prejudicial to those that are excluded.
I will leave to you to decide on the overall merit of the article, and the value of many of the comments posted in response to al-Khalili. However, let me say that it is only when we can move beyond the feeling that we need to defend the historical achievements of the Arab or Islamic or Middle Eastern people, or any non-western people, that a belief in the unity of humankind will be possible. The struggle for this day of unity continues.