A perfect storm: Reason and faith

International Herald Tribune Daily News Egypt

October 14 2011

Philip Whitfield

CAIRO: On the streets it’s observed as a contest between innocence and brutality. In the mind, however the revolution may be regarded in different lights. Is it authoritarianism’s valediction or a struggle for equality?

While it’s premature to jump to conclusions, it is dereliction to dismiss the portents of a gathering perfect storm — the swell of sectarianism, sedition and spleen.

The Arab region has bolted forward 800 years in less than one. Orthodox Arab culture isn’t exploding. It’s imploding. Today’s Arab aspiration is another pirouette of pique that emerges when society tries to segue from the safety of status quo to an unpredictable status futurus.

The 21st Century opens with America on the ropes, Europe drowning in debt and Asia mustering its Trojan horses to corral the spoils.

It’s a surprisingly quick end to imperious western cockiness. The 20th Century saw the collapse of seven empires — Mandarin China, Germany, Austria-Hungary, Ottoman Turkey, Japan, Britain and both Tsarist and Soviet Russia.

The 21st Century ushers in the transmogrification of Islamic hegemony, the cultural dominance of its heartland.

Such change is always labyrinthine. Rome’s empire crumbled in grumbling. Troy’s lassitude surrendered its fabulous wealth to Greek pirates. America’s arrogant, edacious appetite for greenbacks spewed a spendthrift splurge of military might, dismembering its economic muscle.

Today’s actors were similarly engaged in mediaeval times. The Bishop of Cologne Albert the Great (1206 –1280) was convinced that the peaceful coexistence of science and religion was being better handled by Islam than Christianity. He admired the tremendous success of Arabic philosophy and technology, its mastery of the sciences, mathematics, astronomy and botany over theirs.
Intellectually the Arabs were light years ahead.

Then as now Europe was desperately seeking a system that worked. They learned from the Greek and Latin translations coming out of Cordova that the twin pillars of Aristotle and the Quran’s wisdom buttressed Arab superiority.

Christianity didn’t have a problem embracing Islam’s core beliefs, which were much the same as theirs. Their problem was conflating Aristotle’s theory of creation as a natural process with Genesis’ version — nascence in a nutshell.

Neither being provable, the Europeans fell back on belief to cover the cracks. The Arabs accepted a force beyond comprehension as Creation’s genius but used Aristotelian reasoning to get on with their lives.

It’s a pity Europe and Middle East scholarship couldn’t converge to hammer out a compromise. Instead, Europe took the ready-made Arab curriculum for studying chemistry, physics and botany into the University of Paris and onwards. Their naval gazing led to the 18th Century’s Age of Enlightenment, the power of reason to reform society.

Islamist scholars declared they had enough truth to be going on with. Then as until a few months ago the Arabs weren’t interested in upsetting the applecart. The revolutionary thinkers in Paris, Rome, Athens and Constantinople could get on with their bickering — what good would it do them? As it happens, much: Europe advanced rapidly.

The establishment’s wings were clipped. Protestantism was invented, fought over and fled to America where tolerance of dissimilarity grew an affluent and apparently inculpable people worshipping the American dream — the envy of the dispossessed.

Jettisoning its ethics and principles to subjugate Iraq and Afghanistan, America wrought the opprobrium of decent people, disgraced by a vainglorious attempt to settle scores with explosive technologies misused to kill bands of insurrectionists.

America’s strength is not finesse. The plumber with only a hammer to hand whacks every joint causing a drip to cascade in floods. The seamstress too impoverished to own a sewing machine hand stitches and embroiders an even more beautiful garment for her child.

The Arab street erupted not over western conquest, as they might, but over their own leaders’ synchronicity. They saw their secret services inveigled into interrogating suspects in dungeons, bludgeoned before dubious incarceration in Guantanamo.

They reasoned if the world’s rulers could cage dissenters like animals what hope was there for them? If they arose armed, would they be snuffed out as wantonly? Their strategy to organize peaceful non-violent uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt was a tentative first step to test the waters.

Ironically they reverse-mimicked the 13th Century’s discourse between Europe and the Middle East. Youthful protest was to disestablish an Arab order swamped by corruption and deceit, its failure to share the spoils, the subjugation of talent, intellectual energy, resourcefulness, disavowing righting wrongs, deaf to their children’s craving for fair play and women’s rights.

Albert the Great put his trust in Thomas Aquinas, a youngster he mentored in 1245 at the University of Paris’ Faculty of Arts. When Thomas failed his first exams Albert exclaimed: We call him the dumb ox, but in his teaching he will one day produce such a bellowing that it will be heard throughout the world.

Later canonized Thomas became the church’s greatest philosopher and theologian. Thomas’s eternal gift defines the goal of human existence as a union of amaranthine fellowship under God or, in agnostic Aristotle’s eyes, the source of goodness.

That’s where the revolution stands today: a tussle between tolerance and prejudice. Can the divergent groups that teeter on destroying the ethos of the revolution come together in equable debate, albeit rigorous and spirited before, during and after the people’s choice of leaders concludes?

Faiths unite in respect for creation’s wonder as Tahrir Square demonstrates from time to time. Reason can prevail when the antagonists listen to each other.
Of the 323 violent and non-violent campaigns for democracy in the past century, non-violence is winning hands down: two to one. Unfortunately, 40 percent of the non-violent campaigns ran out of steam one way or another, the post-insurgencies looking much the same as before.

A run-out-of steam scenario in Egypt would be better than a bloodbath. The omens aren’t boding well. This week’s murderous events support the growing speculation that violence will erupt during the November elections.

If murder on a grand scale is likely, the elections should be postponed.
Killing each other would not only be lamentable. It will kill Egypt’s credibility abroad and consign economic progress into the Dark Ages.

What’s required is conciliation on both sides. The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces should arbitrate not dictate. Their mission is to protect not to provoke. The forces for change, which represent almost everyone, should parade their credibleness instead of carping over every choice they don’t condone.

Reasoning will fathom the question eluding the nation: how to avoid hysterical disunity?

Faith trumpets the triumph of liberty, justice and freedom on a jubilant, jacquerie journey.
.
Philip Whitfield is a commentator in Cairo.

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