Medieval Golden Age, Modern Barbarism

Earlier this year, as conflict raged in northern Syria, two professors, one Lebanese and the other American, both from elite universities in the Washington, D.C. area, passed the long night at Queen Alia International Airport in Amman, Jordan, drinking tea. They pondered the weighty issues of the region: whether the nation-state paradigm was the residue of colonialism or a reality to which nations of the Middle East must conform; American military engagement and its consequences; and, of course, the sources of violent extremism. At one point, the Lebanese professor lamented, “These extremists are the worst thing ever to happen to Islam.” The American professor casually observed that they wished to reject modernity and return to the Middle Ages. “But the Islamists are themselves modern,” the Lebanese professor responded. “The violence against ideas and freedom and the dignity of the person—this is all modern, not medieval. Islam’s Golden Age was actually fairly free and tolerant of diverse thought.” The American professor arched a skeptical brow.
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