Resources Research

Culture and systems of knowledge, cultivation and food, population and consumption

Posts Tagged ‘Islam

A time before the pillage – what North Africa should mean to us

with 2 comments

The ugly triumphalism of the decade of 2000-10 is being held aloft again, as the fighting in Libya continues. As before, it is the scandalous regimes conventionally called western liberal democracies which are blaring out their triumphal tattoos, all over the media and across the Internet. The bankers, financiers, arms dealers, oil barons, fuel traders, commodity speculators, land grabbers and their cronies in government (many governments) are already counting their superprofits.

L'Afrique, ou Lybie ulterieure - This map of Africa by Nicolas Sanson, royal geographer to Kings Louis XIII and XIV, and commonly known as the father of French cartography, was published by Sanson’s own house in 1679 in Paris. The map was based, according to Sanson, on a composite of information drawn from other maps as well as “upon the observations of Samuel Blomart.” It also may have drawn on the Dutch writer Olfert Dapper’s work of 1668, Naukeurige Beschrijvingen der Afrikaensche gewesten (Description of Africa). The continent is presented as “Greater Libya” and the map concentrates on the Saharan region of north Africa and the surrounding land of west Africa, stretching from Guinea and the black coast to Nubia in the east <http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.wdl/dlc.142&gt;.

The Maghrib that is North Africa is being readied for an even more intense period of plunder and pillage, of that there is no doubt. The very idea of ‘rebel’ had been perverted, as it has been the past year from Morocco to Syria. Amidst this savage celebrating, there is a need to turn to history and its many threads, to rediscover and hear again of the luminous nature of that which is now being ridden under, to reflect on the carefully constructed fruits of civilisations that inspired and instructed the thinkers and doers of western Europe.

From ‘The spread of civilization in the Maghrib and its impact on western civilization’, by M Talbi, extracted from ‘Africa from the Twelfth to the Sixteenth Century’, Volume 4 in UNESCO’s General History of Africa, Heinemann-California-UNESCO, 1984.

The century of the Almohads – It is hard to decide just when a civilization reaches its peak, when its influence is greatest. For the Maghrib, was it under the Aghlabids in the ninth century, when the armed might of Ifnkiya threatened Rome and ruled the Mediterranean? Or in the tenth, when the Fatimids made Mahdiyya the seat of a caliphate which rivalled that of Baghdad? Or should we opt for the Almohad era (i 147-1269), when for the first time, under a local, authentically Berber dynasty, a vast empire was united which extended from Tripoli to Seville? We have to recognize that there were several peaks, and among all those peaks that of the twelfth century was certainly not the least.

And Spain? It had certainly fallen from the political greatness it had known of old under ‘Abd al-Rahmän II (912-61) or under the ‘reign’ of the dictator, al-Mansür b. Abï cAmir, the redoubtable Almanzor of the Christian chronicles. But the case of Spain and the Maghrib was comparable with that of Greece and Rome : Spain conquered its uncouth Berber conquerors, Almoravid or Almohad, twice over, and by giving them the age-old treasures of its artistic and cultural traditions made them into builders of a civilization. So from the twelfth century onwards, the civilization of the Muslim West was a fusion of the culture of Spain and the Maghrib, even more than it had been in the past.

This photograph of a street scene in Tripoli, Libya, is from the George Grantham Bain Collection at the Library of Congress. Although little information about this photograph has survived, it most likely was acquired and distributed by Bain in connection with news of the 1911-12 Italo-Turkish War in which Italy wrested control of Libya from the Ottoman Empire <http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.wdl/dlc.2444&gt;.

It was a civilization built in part — although how great a part is difficult to say – by blacks who came from the regions south of the Sahara. They were to be found in large numbers in Morocco and throughout the whole of the Maghrib. Intermarriage, against which there was no prejudice whatsoever, was common and naturally had some biocultural influence, the nature of which, however, is difficult to determine with any degree of certainty or accuracy. There were also blacks to be found in Spain, principally in Seville and Granada. As slaves for a time, or as free men, they played a considerable role in the army and the economy, and they also brought with them certain customs of their native country. Some of them, such as Jean Latin, a university professor in Spain, attained the highest levels of the intellectual world and gave a stronger African flavour to the Spanish Maghrib.

Art and architecture – In the period that we are interested in, this civilization was centred in the western half of the Maghrib. Kayrawän had declined greatly and Ifnkiya had lost its primacy. We should note that the century of the Almohads was also that of the Almoravids (1061-1147). Apart from the religious aspects, which do not concern us here, there was no break between the two dynasties as regards their civilization. Almohad art, in particular, was merely the flowering culmination of processes which had been developed or introduced from Spain under the Almoravids.

The Almoravids were great builders. Few vestiges remain of their civil architecture, more exposed to the fury of men and the ravages of time and weather. Of the palaces they erected at Marrakesh and Tagrart, nothing is left; of their fortresses, very little; nor do we know much about their public engineering works, in particular their irrigation. But some of the finest religious monuments are still there for us to admire. The most characteristic of those extant today are in Algeria. The Great Mosque of Marrakesh, unfortunately, disappeared under the tidal wave of Almohadism. At Fez, the mosque of al-Karawiyyïn is not entirely Almoravid, but a building of the mid-ninth century, altered and enlarged.

This treatise by the prominent Shafi’i theologian Muhammad al-Amidi (died 1233) deals with questions of original existence and mental existence. The manuscript copy shown here was made in 1805 by an unknown scribe. It is from the Bašagic' Collection of Islamic Manuscripts in the University Library of Bratislava, Slovakia.

On the other hand, the Great Mosque at Algiers, built around 1096, is a genuinely Almoravid foundation which has not suffered unduly from the alterations made in the fourteenth century and again during the Turkish period. There is also the mosque of Nedroma. But the most beautiful building is undeniably the Great Mosque of Tlemcen, an imposing monument measuring 50 m by 60 m, begun about 1082 and completed in 1136. It united the vigour and majesty of the Saharans with the refinement and delicacy of Andalusian art. Marcáis writes: ‘There is no need to emphasize the importance of the Great Mosque of Tlemcen. The peculiarities of its design, and still more the juxtaposition, even the close association, of the Andalusian ribbed dome with the Iranian-inspired corbels [projections] in the form of mukarnas [stalactites]… give it an eminent place among Muslim works.’

Literature – The twelfth century was also notable for brilliant literary activity. The initial reservations of the Almoravids and Almohads concerning poets and profane works in general soon dissolved under the hot sun of Spain. The princes of both dynasties lived up to the tradition that an Arab sovereign should also be an interested and enlightened patron. They encouraged culture and gave their patronage to men of letters.

Here, too, the western part of the Spanish Maghrib held the place of honour. Ifrîkiya did not make much of a showing. Almost the only writer to be mentioned during this period is Ibn Hamdïs (c. 1055-1133), who was a genuine poet with a widespread reputation – and he was born in Sicily. As a youth he had to leave ‘his Sicilian fatherland’, which had been conquered by the Normans, and ever afterwards he dwelt on his memories of it with an engaging nostalgia. After a short stay at the court of al-Muctamid ‘ala ‘lläh (more properly called Muhammad b. ‘Abbäd al-Mu’tadid) at Seville, he spent the greater part of his life in Ifrîkiya. The Muses were cultivated more successfully in the far Maghrib and above all in Spain. Among the more talented practitioners of the art were Ibn ‘Abdün (who died at Evora in 1134); Ibn al-Zakkâk al-Balansî (d. c. 1133); Ibn Bakï (d. 1150), who spent his life journeying back and forth between Spain and Morocco and whose muwashshah (a genre in which he excelled) ended in a Khardja in the Romance tongue; Abu Bahr Safwän b. Idrîs (d. 1222); Abu ‘1-Hasan ‘Abï b. Harïk (d. 1225); Muhammad b. Idrïs Mardj al-Kul (d. 1236); Ibn Dihya, who left Spain, travelled all through the Maghrib, living for a while in Tunis, and died in Cairo; Ibn Sahl (d. 1251), a native of Seville, of Jewish origin and great poetic sensibility, who entered the service of the Governor of Ceuta after his native city fell to Ferdinand III (1248); and Abu ‘1-Mutarrif b. ‘Amïra (d. c. 1258), who was born at Valencia, served the last Almohads in various cities of Morocco and ended his life in the service of the Hafsids of Tunis.

In this constellation two stars shone with particular brilliance: Ibn Khafadja (1058-1139), uncle of the Ibn al-Zakkâk mentioned earlier, and above all Ibn Kuzmän (b. after 1086, d. 1160). The former, without quite being a court poet (he came from a well-to-do family from Alcira, in the province of Valencia), did the conventional thing and eulogized the important men of the day, among them the Almoravid prince Abu Ishäk Ibrahim b. Tâshfin. But it is mainly as an inimitable poet of nature that Ibn Khafadja has come down to posterity. In his sensuous and romantic verse he sings of the joy of living, the water of rivers and ponds, gardens and flowers, fruits and the pleasures of existence. He was called al-Djannän (the gardener) and there is no anthology old or new that does not offer a selection of his poems. He is one of the classic Arabic poets.

Advertisements

A dying empire is a dangerous empire

with 2 comments

US and western news agencies tell us that the news of bin Laden's death brought many to the streets in US cities. What are they celebrating? The end of a 10-year-old war that has eviscerated middle-class America? Photo: Al Jazeera/AFP

After the triumphalism of the Abbottabad strike, the cold reality of overshoot – In recent months the signals from what America sometimes calls its heartland have been worrying, downright alarming. Manufacturing in the USA is down to a shadow, as a percentage of GDP, of what it used to be 25 years ago. The services economy – which the Bretton Woods twins, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, have prescribed to developing countries and then arm-twisted them for it – creates few new jobs and negligible new savings in the USA. First under George Bush the younger, and then under Barack Obama, social sector spending and support has been dwindling.

Working class America, burdened by a decade of wars their government has pursued all around the world, has been brought to its knees with a new round of cuts imposed by the latest in a growing line of war-mongering US presidents. For them, whether Obama is Republican or Democrat makes little difference. Why this is so can be seen from news reports found in the local and independent-minded newspapers (those that still exist) in that country: “Tennessee’s legislative onslaught against teachers”, “Wisconsin Senate rams through anti-worker bill”, “Idaho students walk out over education cuts”, “Momentum builds for austerity budget in California”, “Several thousand demonstrate in Columbus, Ohio” and “Ten thousand attend protest at Indiana statehouse”. These tell the tale of the effect at home of long years of warring abroad.

Today, apart from automobiles, aircraft jet engines and weapons (and, yes, nuclear reactors) there are few material goods the USA gives the world. It gives the world a great deal of weapons to kill, annihilate, destroy and burn, and it pursues this export of death-dealing with heavy-handed foreign policy and ham-fisted trade ‘negotiations’. But Americans, those who want to pursue humble professions and vocations that have nothing to do with their country’s export priorities, must buy some basics for their survival. That is when they contribute to the most visible symbol of imperial overstretch – the USA’s trade balance with its biggest trading partner, China. Rising steadily over 20 years, the US-China trade imbalance (when viewed with American eyes) dipped only slightly after 11 September 2001. In 2008-09, the dip was far greater, but the graph was much higher then, and stands today at just under US$300 billion.

Osama bin Laden, a picture from the Gulf News Archive

It is not a sight to soothe the riled and roiled states of today’s American heartland. Nor does it help the average American that the monetarily unhinged policies of Bush the younger, wherein he forgave the rich their taxes in order to submit the poor to more of them, have been enshrined as principle by his democrat successor, a man whose forefathers were Kenyan. It does not help, as the magazine Mother Jones says, that a New York janitor making slightly more than US$33,000 a year pays an effective tax rate of nearly 25%, but the effective tax rate for a resident of a Park Avenue building, earning an average of US$1.2 million annually, must complain about a 14.7% tax burden.

Perhaps the last word in cold spending logic should come from the Swedes. Two months ago the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) released its latest report on international military expenditures. World military spending rose only 1.3% in 2010 to US$1.63 trillion, after average annual growth of 5.1% between 2001 and 2009, said SIPRI. The USA remained by far the biggest defence spender in the world – US$698 billion – and accounted for almost all of global growth in military expenditure in 2010, an increase of US$19.6 billion out of the US$20.6 billion global increase. Today, the USA’s defence budget is 4.8% of its GDP, its budget has increased 81% since 2001 and is six times greater than that of China, the next biggest spender. In contrast, in Europe, military spending fell by 2.8% as governments cut costs to address soaring budget deficits.

A man watches television news on the death of Osama bin Laden in Peshawar, Pakistan. Photo: Al Jazeera/EPA

This is the tenth year since the ‘war on terror’ was declared by No 43, Bush the younger, and it tells us much that all of them, from No 32 during World War Two, have begun or continued wars and military campaigns. No 44, the current president, claimed righteously that the USA “went to war against Al Qaeda to protect our citizens, our friends, and our allies”. This is the same claim made by NATO in and about Libya. It has been repeated wherever, in the last half-century, imperial America has wanted to seize economic resources or prevent others from doing so. That is why US armed forces in Afghanistan have tripled since Obama took office. After Abbottabad, nothing in the remarks made by No 44 and his staff and generals have suggested in any way that the killing of bin Laden will lead to a significant change in American foreign policy, let alone an end to the relentless expansion of military interventions.

The announcment of the killing of Osama bin Laden is being underlined by the US Department of State as a milestone in America’s ‘war on terror’. In a campaign that is now in the last half of its tenth year, the costs of this ‘war’ have dwarfed most modern reckoning of conflict. Independent estimates place the cost of the US military engagement in Iraq at over US$780 billion since 2001, and at over US$400 billion for its deployment in Afghanistan over the same period. At more than US$1.1 trillion the sober question that is certainly being asked by those at home in middle America is: has it been worth it to reach this milestone? Perhaps a more accurate question will be: if the death of bin Laden indeed signals the final demise of the al-Qaeda network, what will it take to wind down these wars until the last American soldier goes home?

It will be some time before either of these are answered with some degree of belief, or or trust in Washington’s governance of its military-industrial complex. The US and its allies will enjoy a self-congratulatory glow in the short-term future but, far to the west of Abbottabad, the long-term future of northern Africa is being determined by means no less violent than those which removed forever bin Laden. We would like, as rational and peaceable folk, to agree that war and economic stability, that protracted conflict and human development do not and cannot coexist. Yet for the last decade, the world’s richest countries and most militarily ambitious have done their best to tell us the opposite.

A key influence on bin Laden was Dr Abdullah Azzam, a Palestinian professor and member of the Palestinian Muslim Brotherhood. Photo: Al Jazeera

In the aftermath of the Abbottabad strike, which is the truer reflection of our times? Agencies of the United Nations, those primarily concerned with helping people live better, healthier, safer lives, have spared no effort in telling us that more, not less, needs to be done for the world’s poor and vulnerable. If the death of bin laden is also a signal that obscenely enormous military spending will now be used to feed the hungry, teach the young and give them a greener future, then perhaps we can indeed call it a milestone.

Any rendering of separatist groups, of insurgencies, of terror networks and their anarchist ideologies however informs us that a milestone, even one as important as this, is only a milestone. While for most governments in the Middle East the al-Qaeda and its allied organisations was a persistent and highly dangerous group under a bin Laden alive, without him it is hardly likely to be less so. The decade since the 11 September attacks has been as remarkable for the new insights into ideology-based armed insurrectionists as it has been for the huge resources it has required to tackle them, not always successfully.

Less than 24 hours after the Abbottabad strike, geo-political analysts and experts on extremist networks were already providing their immediate reaction: be cautious in assuming the damage done to al-Qaeda and be circumspect when predicting the strategic and security consequences of bin Laden’s death. For those entrusted with providing security to their country’s citizens in the face of extremism, the first assessment will be whether bin Laden is considered a martyr whose methods are to be emulated, or whether those who are influenced by al-Qaeda will value economic opportunity more than taking to the gun. It is a difficult assessment to attempt for in the Arab region, as the Arab Human Development Report 2009 underlined forcefully, human insecurity is reflected in the economic vulnerability of one-fifth of the people in some Arab states, and more than half in others, people whose lives are impoverished and cut short by hunger and want.

It is likely, although such a likelihood flies in the face of sanity, that the US regime does not recognise the problems facing us all, many of which have been central to campaigns by United Nations agencies and development organisations, including USAID. Less than two months ago, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon reminded world leaders: “Millions of people have been pushed into poverty by the latest food price rises. I am especially concerned about the poorest households that often spend three-quarters of their income on food. When prices go up, they go hungry.”

And yet the World Food Programme late last year had to make hard decisions about who to abandon to starvation for lack of money to buy food aid with. Nor is that the only concern. The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change has set up a new fund aimed at mobilising resources to help developing countries mitigate the impact of global warming, to help the transition to low-carbon futures – a seventh of the US annual defence budget will keep it on course for five years, benefiting millions. These are the greater challenges, solved not by attack drones and aircraft carriers, but by co-operation and sharing of ideas in a climate of peace. But No. 44, true to presidential form, will have none of it, just as he won’t from the people of Wisconsin, Idaho and Ohio.

The Great Game all over again?

leave a comment »

 

Ethnic Uzbeks gathered near the Kyrgz-Uzbek border in southern Kyrgyzstan in June, trying to seek refuge in Uzbekistan following violence in the city of Osh. According to official estimates, 370 people died there after the Kyrgz went on a rampage against the Uzbeks, and vice versa. The true figure is likely more than 2,000. Some 75,000 people fled to Uzbekistan. Photo: Der Spiegel

 

The Deutsch news magazine Der Spiegel certainly thinks so. It has begun a special series which will explore Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. In these countries, once the center of the ‘Great Game’, a bitter struggle over natural resources and strategic bases between the British and Russian colonial powers, history is being repeated, says Der Spiegel.

“The Pamir, Hindu Kush and Tian Shan mountain ranges and the Syr Darya and Amu Darya rivers border a region in which two world religions, Islam and Christianity, collided, astronomy blossomed and eminent doctors taught. Central Asia is one of the eternal hot spots in world history, a place where Darius I and Alexander the Great, Genghis Khan and Tamerlane left their marks. The British and Russian colonial powers followed suit when they embarked on the “Great Game,” a bitter struggle over natural resources and strategic bases.”

The news magazine says that today the major powers’ interests in the region range from military bases for waging the war against the Taliban to oil and gas pipelines and drug prevention. One of the most important heroin smuggling routes passes through a part of Central Asia controlled by Islamists.

“For these reasons, the world is now witnessing a new version of the Great Game, this time involving both the former players, Russia and Great Britain, and new players, the United States, China and Iran. None of the countries within their field of vision is stable, eccentric dictators are in control almost everywhere, corruption is rampant and many nations are at odds with their neighbours.”