IN DECEMBER, Yvonne Ridley, a prominent British political journalist, was on a lecture tour of California. She shared one of her written speeches with me that was about cultural diversity and inclusiveness. The title was “Influence of Islam in Governance and Development.”
The following are excerpts from her speech. I have her permission to share her thoughts with you. My hope is that it will be read with the understanding that civilizations do not have to clash. They could help in advancement of each other, like a good neighbor. That is living with hope and not the politics of fear.
She talked about another British TV host who wrote a newspaper column denigrating Arabs and Muslims. Robert Kilroy-Silk was holidaying on a Spanish beach resort when he wrote his intolerant article. One of the things he said was that Arabs and Muslims have given us nothing, zero.
Basically, “Arab” is a cultural and linguistic term. It refers to those who speak Arabic as their first language. They are people who are united by culture and history. Just like Muslims, Arabs are not a race or nationality. They have blue eyes and red hair and dark skin and black hair. They are Christians, Jews and Muslims, just like in America.
Only a few miles away is the province of Andalusia, where Kilroy-Silk could have seen some of the most beautiful architecture in Europe — Arab architecture. Planned, built and exquisitely decorated by the ancestors of the people Kilroy-Silk apparently
thinks are so inferior.
It is not only in Spain that Arab architecture has left a European mark. The pointed arch often attributed to medieval builders and called “Gothic” was taken straight from the East and brought to the West by early Crusaders.
And while the Crusaders were carrying out wars in the holy lands, Arab poets, mathematicians, astronomers, philosophers and scientists were advancing human civilization to unprecedented peaks of sophistication. The region was known as the cradle of civilization.
Kilroy-Silk was right when he said Arabs gave us “zero.” Without the concept of “zero” and Arabic numerals we would not have computers and many other advancements. Abbasids in Baghdad were also flourishing about the same time.
Reading and writing is also a direct legacy from Arabs and Muslims to the rest of the world. During their travels to China they came across paper, which was introduced to their society and then to Europe. The result was a wave of poetry, prose, philosophy, scholarship, learning and entertainment.
This was an era of a thousand and one nights and vast public libraries. There were astronomical observatories, pharmaceutical laboratories, medical schools and the development of inoculations against diseases — and, of course, there was Islam.
When Ridley’s ancestors were still wearing sack clothes, living in caves and huts, Muslims were involved in international trades, introducing the first bank checks or promissory notes.
They were developing fine silks and perfumes and inspiring the European Renaissance.
Yes, the Muslim world has had, and still has, its fair share of dictators and tyrants.
So, perhaps we should focus again on tolerance and try and celebrate our differences instead of revile them.
Tolerance can mean many things on many levels. For instance, Ridley said, “I have come to accept the fact that I will never get a decent cup of tea in America, and if you come to Britain, please do not expect to get a decent cup of coffee unless you track down a decent Italian restaurant.”
“But, you live in a great country and when someone tells me, ‘Have a nice day!’ I genuinely believe they mean it. America’s greatest commodity is its people, not the politicians.”
American Muslims are as varied as the broader American population. So why is there a notion that Islam advocates violence? How can we expect people to have open minds if the media is constantly poisoning their minds with fear?
We all need to, we must, open bridges of communication toward a greater mutual understanding.