The Crusades Through Arab Eyes by Amin Maalouf. New York: Schocken, 1987

17 Aug

In this and similar posts, always bear in mind what I say about the purpose of this blog: to clarify ideas for myself, and then maybe for others. What I am really wrestling with is what attitude is best calculated to minimise the harmful effects of division in a culturally diverse society such as ours is, especially in the current world climate, not as some ideal but as a matter of fact and practice. As an ESL teacher who has been necessarily concerned with multicultural matters, and as one who in his own life has lived an intercultural experience, these things matter a lot to me. In most Sydney and suburban schools these things are part of the daily round as well, if not for much longer in my case.

I read this some years ago, borrowed (of course) from Surry Hills Library.

The Crusades fueled Western myths of the “Orient” as a place of decadent splendor, and the Arabs as rapacious, cunning thugs — myths which endure in the minds of millions in the West today. One of the reasons for the persistence of these images is their existence in an intellectual vacuum, devoid of the corrective influence of different opinions. At Oxford University, for example, no Arab authors can be found on the reading lists of students of the Crusader era.

Amin Maalouf, in his outstanding and thoroughly researched work, The Crusades Through Arab Eyes, sets out to redress the balance by presenting the Arab side of the Crusades in their own words. Lengthy quotations from original sources are incorporated into an exciting narrative packed with fresh insights, off-beat details, and succinct commentary. It will not surprise the reader to learn that Maalouf is a highly regarded journalist and former editor of the respected Lebanese daily An-Nahar, as well as an award-winning novelist. This book harnesses these talents to the task of letting Arab historians speak for themselves, while condensing 200 years of action-filled history into one volume and never losing the interest of the general reader. The Crusades Through Arab Eyes is a story and a historical discussion rolled into one, and to the author’s credit he never overextends himself into polemics, which is left for the professional historians…

Another book by Maalouf, a Lebanese Christian incidentally, is On Identity, one of the best books of its kind I have ever read, which shapes much of what I do and say in this area.

There is no doubt that our visceral fear of the Other corrupts our thinking especially during this phase of our history perhaps misnamed The War on Terror — you will recall it is now officially a “struggle against violent extremism.” We are also not helped by our ethnocentric habits inherited from the past, sometimes inevitable — we can’t possibly know everything — and sometimes harmless enough: perhaps, for example, our assessment of the achievements of western civilisation is just a touch presumptuous: are we really familiar with the achievements of other civilisations? And yet I still, no matter what shifts of perspective I have undergone, do come back — as do many outside the western sphere — to the conviction that much that is progressive and hopeful in the world has indeed emerged because of the tradition of western and scientific thinking that dates back to the Renaissance and Reformation and on through the Enlightenment. Maalouf is himself a beneficiary, as he would be the first to admit. On the other hand, that enlightenment stream of western thinking is not only rejected by Islamists, but also by fundamentalist Christians. Witness the current fuss over “intelligent design.”

However, insofar as the central propaganda plank of the terrorists has been that there is a “war on Islam”, that Islam is under threat, it is really important that we don’t inadvertently support the terrorists by behaving, or speaking, in such a way as to support the concept that we in the west are in fact setting out to undermine Islam. Even John Howard is careful to avoid that, so is Tony Blair, and I suppose George Bush tries though his inferior intellectual grasp compared to both Howard and Blair makes that harder for him perhaps. And I am still of the view that under Bush and company we have made some very poor moves in pursuit of what are mixed, but not entirely reprehensible, ends.

But there isn’t much I can do about all that, and I am of two views on, for example, Iraq, namely that 1) it was a mistake but 2) we damned well have to succeed there now.

So what am I saying? 1) We have to confess that reform within Islam can only happen if Muslims themselves see that it is necessary, and a better path than terror and mayhem: if you like, that jihad be redirected to struggling for the modernisation of Islam. 2) That whenever we see Muslims expressing views that tend towards greater pluralism and away from the tradition’s dark side, we should welcome and applaud those Muslims. 3) That hate is never the answer, and we should do nothing to foment it. 4) That we accept that it is possible for diversity to exist in the world without tearing the world apart. And there are traditions within Islam that hold promise: for example, and being no expert I can’t claim to know all in this area but I have benefited from conversations with my friend the Mufti of Watson’s Bay and others: Sufism; the example of Akbar the Great, Mughal Emperor of India contemporary with, and great as or greater than, Elizabeth I; a tradition of Islamic rationalism.

On a much more parochial note, I have found welcome recently, and what I deeply need, in my contact thus far with the South Sydney Uniting Church. (My mother’s cousin Irma and my Uncle Roy have long been pillars of the Uniting Church, in Irma’s case Ashfield for possibly seventy years and more, so there is another dimension there for me too.) On the other hand, the Uniting Church also contains the Reverend Fred Nile and Gordon Moyes, two of Sydney’s most eminent homophobes. Paradoxical, isn’t it?

I also hope that my friendship with The Rabbit, who really means a lot to me, is unaffected by the reception I and “Marcel Proust” have given his in some ways very clever piece on his blog recently, which unfortunately, so I and Marcel think, strayed too far in the direction of vilification.

It is not that the concerns that underlie his satirical piece are misplaced or unimportant, but they do cry out for more thought, a starting-point perhaps being provided here. I found myself admiring the work of the teachers at Belmore Boys High who were part of the 2001-2003 UTS/Department of Education research project on scaffolding the learning of students of language background other than English; they were weathering the worst of the backlash brought on by September 11 and well-publicised gang rape cases at that time. The Mine seemed a paradise in contrast with what those teachers confronted day to day. I learned from their spirit as well as from their tactics, as they had in the circumstances considerable success. See too this Stateline piece from 2004 on footballer Hazem El Masri.

SHARON O’NEILL: Hazem El Masri was not born in Bulldog territory but he grew up there. Arriving from Lebanon at the age of 10, Belmore Boys High became his school and sport became his passport to success…
SHARON O’NEILL: For these students in Year 10 at Belmore Boys’ High you couldn’t get a better old boy than Hazem El Masri.
STUDENT: He’s a good religious man, he’s a good role model for little kids. Because a lot of the kids when they see him — “Oh, I want to be like Hazem El Masri.”
STUDENT: I feel really proud of him because I’ve never heard anything bad about him personally and like he’s a very good person. He’s not like one of those people — “Oh, I’m famous and I don’t care about everyone else.”
SHARON O’NEILL: How important is it for there to be role models like Hazem for the boys?
ALAN YOUNG [Principal of Belmore Boys]: Oh, its critically important. I mean there are many people as we know in public life and in sport who behave like absolute fools and young people are impressionable and particularly when it’s like to something as sport for young boys it can have a critical influence. So in Hazem you have somebody who, you know, any of them would do well to emulate. He’s a great asset.
HAZEM EL MASRI: I always thank God and thank my parents for bringing me up the right way and the good way and for teaching me the wrong and the right from the beginning.
SHARON O’NEILL: But for every Lebanese family like the El Masris, there are many more who have not fared so well. In a community suffering huge social disadvantage Hazem El Masri is hoping he can bring about some changes.
HAZEM EL MASRI: I’ll always believe that if I can change one person’s life from 10 people I’ve done a good job and that’s why I always sort of go out of my way to be able to hopefully inspire them and get them active instead of going out there and doing trouble, or getting bored or whatever…

(God this keyboard at the Korean Internet Cafe is awful – stiff and sticky! A typo-making machine.)

But now I have to focus on going to the dentist. (Grrrr!)

NOTE: Now you can read chunks of Amin Maalouf — enough to get his drift — on Google Books: In the Name of Identity: Violence and the Need to Belong.

UPDATE 2008!

Someone pointed out to me recently that Fred Nile is not a member of the Uniting Church, but rather of an evangelical remnant of the Congregational Church.

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