Decline and Ascendance

  Among the reasons given for his jihad against the West, Osama bin Laden cited something he called "the tragedy of Andalusia." He was referring to the re-conquest of Southern Spain in 1492. For nearly seven centuries, Moorish Spain embodied the Islamic world's cultural superiority over Europe. While much of medieval Europe lived in squalor, Muslim Cordoba boasted street lighting, hundreds of public baths, and at least seventy libraries. And Islamic greatness at the time wasn't limited to Moorish Spain. Bernard Lewis, the world's greatest authority on the Islamic world, writes in his new book, What Went Wrong: Western Impact and Middle Eastern Response, that a thousand years ago, only China approached the achievements of Islamic civilization. Name the area -- science, math, architecture -- and the Islamic world ran circles around the West. My friend Jack Kemp noted in a recent column that this flowering of Islamic civilization "occurred when it showed the most tolerance toward religious minorities." "Suddenly," Lewis tells us, "the relationship changed." For the last five hundred years, the Islamic world has lagged behind the Christian West: politically, culturally, and economically. According to Lewis, this once great civilization has become "poor, weak, and ignorant" compared to its rival, the Christian West. According to Lewis, while the twentieth century saw advances in freedom and democracy in the West, the same period saw a "string of shabby dictatorships" in the Islamic world. This was coupled with religious oppression. While Lewis's book was written prior to September 11, we can see how the rage of some Islamists over this reversal of fortunes was reflected in the events of that day. One of the major reasons for the reversal, writes Lewis, is that the Muslim world, instead of turning its gaze inwards, chose to blame its decline on external forces, specifically, the Christian West. But there's more to it than Islam's wrapping itself in victim status. This difference has to do with the capacity for self-criticism and reform of the Christian worldview. It's not a coincidence that the period that witnessed Islam's decline and Christianity's ascent began with the Reformation. The Reformation ideal of the Church as always being reformed was a bulwark against the kind of cultural stagnation that has plagued the Islamic world. And this idea of perpetual reformation wasn't limited to the Protestant world; the Catholic Church also embraced reform. The reforming mindset not only affected Christianity, but it also created the foundation for the modern world. The dynamism and freedom that characterizes the West is the product of Christianity's reforming itself and moving forward culturally. As historian Samuel Huntington has noted, Western Christianity shaped the basic institutions in most of the world's truly democratic societies. By contrast, when Muslims speak of "reform," they mean moving back culturally to the legal and social arrangements of Muhammad's day. While it's important to understand the historical reasons for the decline that outrages the bin Ladens of the world, there's an even more important lesson for Christians. The ascendancy of the West is the story of the difference that Christianity makes, and it's a story we can't let our culture forget.  
For Further Reading and Information
Jack Kemp, "Deficits in the Arab World,", 9 July 2002. Bernard Lewis, What Went Wrong: Western Impact and Middle Eastern Response (J. Paul Getty Museum, 2002). Philip Jenkins, The Next Christendom (Oxford University Press, 2002). Samuel Huntington, The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order (Touchstone, 1998). John Derbyshire, "'Our Lost Land': Israel, Taiwan, Ulster," National Review Online, 18 October 2001. Christianity on Trial: Arguments against Anti-Christian Bigotry (Encounter Books, 2001) by Vincent Carroll and David Shiflett shows how the Christian tradition has not only injected morality into our political order, but also softened brutal practices and confining superstitions, created the foundation for intellectual inquiry, and created the compassionate impulse.


Chuck Colson


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