The Light Bringer Goes to Cairo

Some remarks on the President’s address.

  • “For over a thousand years, Al-Azhar has stood as a beacon of Islamic learning; and for over a century, Cairo University has been a source of
    Egypt’s advancement.” Hmmm. That seems a stretch.
  • “I also know civilization’s debt to Islam. It was Islam — at places like Al-Azhar — that carried the light of learning through so many
    centuries, paving the way for Europe’s Renaissance and Enlightenment.” This is indeed a persistent fallacy. In the last five or ten years, I think the maxim that “Every commonly held belief about historical events and motivations is exactly wrong” is a turning out to be a fine rule. From WWI trench warfare to this one, all these notions … all wrong. That “light of learning” was carried by Byzantium and a lot of it came west at the sack of Constantinople by the crusaders and the carting off of the libraries, marble, gold and so on to Venice. If you think that’s wrong, ask yourself where, when, and how the intellectual exchange of documents and teaching between the crusaders and the West occurred? (hint: it didn’t in any meaningful way … and what little did was came via Byzantium)
  • “And I consider it part of my responsibility as President of the United States to fight against negative stereotypes of Islam wherever they
    appear.” How about to highlighting the negative realities?

If we compare the responses of this speech from two esteemed bloggers from both sides of political spectrum there is, on offer, an interesting comparison (besides the nearly identical title). The pseudonymous “hilzoy” offers that this “broke the mold” and offered praise and criticism to both “sides” and that each side might take away from the lesson learned from the criticism. Richard Fernandez on the other hand, similarly comments that there is in fact praise and criticism that both sides might note … but that the effect will be the reverse. That each “side” will key on the criticism of the other and like Eris with her golden apple this will only serve to inflame each other, with each ignoring the faint mentions of their own and inflame their own image of the other’s flaws? Given human nature … which will be the more likely response. I’d offer that the ‘hilzoy’, in part because of the shared assumptions, might closely match the intention of the President and his speechwriters … but that the effect will be the more pessimistic realistic appraisal of Mr Fernandez.

But … like his remarks on the hijab a similar response might be made about the tepidity of his allusion. In a similar vein, examine this response.  Reflect for a moment on the discord vs self-examination as posed our two bloggers and examine those remarks in that light.

Solzhenitsyn coming to the West gave four significant of addresses and spoke from a position of utter political weakness, he was after all no President and weilded no power. His words were rejected but were right in many ways and pulled no punches. Mr Obama on the other hand came to Cairo and told honeyed lies filled with calculated misdirection all intended to move people closer. His words, being fiction, have a better chance of not being rejected outright … but their effect it seems has a not unlikely chance of moving people in the direction he did not intend.

14 responses to “The Light Bringer Goes to Cairo

  1. You do realize you have no credibility here. Whatever Obama said, your post was going to be critical. We all knew that and your opinion has been discounted accordingly.

  2. Boonton,
    I’m curious have you ever heard the term “loyal opposition”? And there is a role for the same?

  3. One secret to being a good ‘loyal opposition’ is don’t try too hard. Remember the boy who cried wolf. Keep this up and no one will recognize a legit Obama criticism when you do make one.

  4. Boonton,
    So … in what way is my criticism not valid?

  5. Boonton,
    Consider for example the essence of my complaint. I linked a disagreement with the characterization of the chosen location. I noted one (of very many) factual historical fallacies … you can google for more. History apparently is something that the fact checkers don’t do at the White House.

    Then … I noted two comparisons that strike highly similar characterizations about this speech, one which was praising it and one not. However, the effect of the speech was diametrically opposite. I sided with the pessimistic view regarding the effect.

    I fail to see why/how you find this post illegitimate criticism.

  6. How is it not valid?

    gypt’s advancement.” Hmmm. That seems a stretch.

    Usually when you speak at a college, you should compliment them on something. I’m not sure how the Universitites sometimes caving into the Egyptian police state today somehow invalidates its thousand year history.

    That “light of learning” was carried by Byzantium and a lot of it came west at the sack of Constantinople by the crusaders and the carting off of the libraries, marble, gold and so on to Venice.

    1. Should the United States fall through a time warp and end up 1500 years ago, I will greatly be in favor of Obama trying to make positive overtures to the Byzantium Empire.

    2. Again when speaking as a guest it’s good to be positive about them. When speaking at an Italian University is it common for speakers to say “Sure the Roman Empire did some impressive things, but it was basically a nation of thugs whose contributed to the world dictatorships, decadent emperors, and a gov’t modeled on funding itself by looting its neighborss….compared to Ancient Greece Rome has a lot to be desired”

    3. If they didn’t keep those libraries and preserve and expand on that learning, There would have been nothing for the crusaders to cart off to Venice. I’d think someone into math would at least appreciate algebra…

    More to the point, the speech is about making an opening to the Muslim world and also challenging Al Qaeda on its own intellectual turf. Perhaps you think the way to do such a speech is to run people down Ann Coutler style. A better style, IMO, was Obamas whose essential point was that the ideals of civilization are not foreign to Islam and were parts of its ancient history. Al Qaeda’s claim, then, that their ideals are actually more ‘authentic’ is therefore false. Of course any speech like this has to be taken with a grain of salt. All ancient cultures leave a lot to be desired and most of us would probably find life very unpleasent if we were magically transported to any given ancient society.

    But … like his remarks on the hijab

    I don’t get it…why shouldn’t women have a right to wear the hijab if they want too? France’s policy not only prohibited women from wearing the hijab but Jews from wearking skullcaps and, presumably, even Orthodox Jewish women from wearing wigs (like Muslims, they have a prohibition on showing their hair in public, except the use of wigs is considered acceptable. The attempt to force such a value on unwilling people serves as a lightening rod for Taliban and Al Qaeda types. No one said that a Muslim woman in France is worse off than one in Afghanistan or northern Pakistan or Saudi Arabia. But the idea is out there that the ideals of modern countries like the US or France cannot be adopted without also prohibiting orthodox followers of Islam. The false choice is use to justify a lot of abuses in the Muslim world and Obama was right to challenge it.

  7. Boonton,
    On location, Mr Obama picked the place. Mr Kuznicki criticizes its choice. And to I’m not sure how the Universitites sometimes caving into the Egyptian police state today somehow invalidates its thousand year history … the harm is that it validates the police state.

    Look, on Byzantium. I pointed out some glaring historical errors made by this “I’m a student of history.” (or in other words, I’m a bald-face liar because either he has telling lies (that is saying things which are both false and that he knows to be false) or he doesn’t even know the things he said are wrong). The first isn’t ultimately very helpful … unless you think propagating historical error is useful, in which case let’s hear you defense for Iran’s (and others) holocaust denial, or the worse possibility that his myriad historical errors were all really errors. That he’s just so clueless that he thinks “he’s historically knowledgeable” but isn’t. To be honest, as other bloggers have pointed out, virtually every single one of the “Muslim accomplishments” noted “from history” were wrong and/or exaggerated badly.

    making an opening to the Muslim world and also challenging Al Qaeda on its own intellectual turf.

    fine. Do that. If you can’t do it without bald faced easily refuted lies … then your project is on weak grounds, no?

    Mr Dao responded to why the hijab remark was inappropriate. Oddly enough, you miss my point in bringing it up, i.e., which response discord or engagement this might engender.

    The false choice is use to justify a lot of abuses in the Muslim world and Obama was right to challenge it.

    But it is you not Obama that make the connection to a “false choice” … I see no evidence that the Muslim reader will take it that way, in fact that will likely go the way suggested by Mr Fernandez, i.e,. allow each side to focus on the flaws of the other side, i.e., “mentioning the hijab” will specifically concentrate the Muslim listener on Western confrontation in that regard and in the West ear on the missing egregious abuses. Each will thereby focus exactly not where Mr Obama desires.

  8. On location, Mr Obama picked the place. Mr Kuznicki criticizes its choice. And to I’m not sure how the Universitites sometimes caving into the Egyptian police state today somehow invalidates its thousand year history … the harm is that it validates the police state.

    Doesn’t actually visiting the state validate it to some degree? It seems kind of strange to think that visiting Egypt’s President isn’t a validation of his state but visiting a university that might have caved into his power is a validation. But then if visiting a state is a validation you have a problem as plenty of right wing presidents have visited Saudi Arabia, Egypt, China, the old USSR and so on.

    Of course, Egypts police state is something of a mixed bag as it is as much a response to radical Islamists as it is your usual dictatorship-will-to-power thing.

    Look, on Byzantium. I pointed out some glaring historical errors made by this “I’m a student of history.”

    You’ve done no such thing. You haven’t pointed out any lies, only said that he didn’t talk up the Byzantium role in history enough. Hey who isn’t a fan of the Byzantium but neglecting to give them a shout out doesn’t constitute a ‘lie’. Furthermore, you original post even admitted that not recognizing the role of the Byzantium in transmitting learning back to Europe is a common misconception. Therefore even on your own terms your charge of lie is a lie.

    But it is you not Obama that make the connection to a “false choice” … I see no evidence that the Muslim reader will take it that way, in fact that will likely go the way suggested by Mr Fernandez, i.e,. allow each side to focus on the flaws of the other side, i.e.,

    And you base this on? What will happen will happen. We’ll just have to wait and see.

  9. Boonton,
    Some support of this “history” thing here. For some reason it seems you need this.

    And you base this on?

    I base this on the reaction I noted to the speech. It was the reason I linked those pieces which was not for the specific complaints.

    Furthermore, you original post even admitted that not recognizing the role of the Byzantium in transmitting learning back to Europe is a common misconception.

    Yes. And anyone who has more than a passing “interest in history” should know that.

  10. Mark,

    First, I found even in a book by Niall Ferguson the idea that Muslim society provided Europe with several major contributions including algebra and our numbering system. Great as Aristotle is, I think modern life would be possible without him but not if we had to use Roman numerals. If this is a misconception, then, it is one that many who are well versed in history are victim too.

    Second, jihadwatch is not a site for those who are seeking out historical knowledge, it is a site for those seeking out talking points against Islam. That’s well and good, there’s plenty of perfectly valid talking points against Islam but that hardly makes the site very definitive in objective historical evaluation. There are similiar sites devoted to talking points against Christianity, Judism, or even religion in general.

    Third, most of the article you cited has nothing to do with Obama’s speech. For example, Obama didn’t claim Islamic society invented moveable type or were quick to adopt the Gutenberg press (and it isn’t suprising that they lagged behind considering their alphabet is not very friendly to block letters). He never claimed Islamic society made any contributions to music.

    Finally he never compared Islamic history to Byzantium nor presented any conclusion that the Byzantium should consider their contributions to be secondary. Your ‘lie’ then essentially consists of Obama failing to add commentary on Byzantium history and contributions in a political speech to Muslims. This would be like accusing someone who made a speech praising ancient Greek contributions as a liar because he failed to note the Italians ‘kicked their butts’. While that is technically true, as is the fact that Italians def. contributed more to cooking than Greeks ever did or will, it is neither particularly helpful or mature for that matter.

  11. Boonton,
    Examine Obama’s speech.

    • It was innovation in Muslim communities that developed the order of algebra; -> mostly true.
    • our magnetic compass and tools of navigation; -> false (China)
    • our mastery of pens and printing; -> false
    • our understanding of how disease spreads and how it can be healed. -> false
    • Islamic culture has given us majestic arches and soaring spires; -> false on the first part (Romans developed the arch)
    • timeless poetry and cherished music; -> partially false -> music?
    • elegant calligraphy and places of peaceful contemplation. -> mostly meaningless
    • And throughout history, Islam has demonstrated through words and deeds the possibilities of religious tolerance and racial equality -> false

    How can you defend this as the statement of “a lover of history”.

  12. see http://wire.factcheck.org/2009/06/05/obama-and-islamic-history/

    our magnetic compass and tools of navigation; -> false (China)

    The claim isn’t that they invented the compass but they did improve upon it. There’s an open debate on whether the compass was transmitted to Europe via the ME from China.

    our mastery of pens and printing; -> false

    Moveable type probably not but mass printing yes. As for pens, well it seems a language with such a scripted alphabet and emphasis on calligraphy would work hard on pens and ink.

    timeless poetry and cherished music; -> partially false -> music?

    Sufi music? Hello? check out http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Islamic_music

    Of course if Obama was writing a book on the history of music, I doubt Islamic society would merit the bulk of the chapters but note here the two flaws in the criticism of his speech:

    1. He isn’t writing such a book. His purpose is not to give a comprehensive overview of world history or art history. Hence he is not obligated to present objective judgements like comparing the quality of music in Muslim history to, say, ancient Greece, Christian Europe or China.

    2. The straw man. To say someone’s cultures has produced ‘timeless poetry’ or ‘cherished music’ is basically a combination of politeness and flattery. Mark and others, though, seem like they want to pretend that this is something else when the basic meanings of the words simply do not merit it. “Cherished music” is basically just cherished music. It’s not ‘devout Islam makes your music better’, it’s not ‘Islamic music was of higher quality than Christian devotional music’ and so on.

    our understanding of how disease spreads and how it can be healed. -> false

    Your false is false. As factcheck points out Muslims physicians were famous in Chauncer’s time, even in the Christian world.

    Islamic culture has given us majestic arches and soaring spires; -> false on the first part (Romans developed the arch)

    ‘Given’ != invented. A culture can produce majectis arches even if they didn’t invent them just like a culture could know all abourt arches but not make much use of them.

    And throughout history, Islam has demonstrated through words and deeds the possibilities of religious tolerance and racial equality -> false

    Except it is basically true. Islam has demonstrated that it could practice religious tolerance and on racial equality Islam is pretty good (as it had to be to unite so many different tribes and ethnic groups). You are confusing the speech with an imaginary straw man. Obama did not claim that Islam always and everwhere demonstrates religious tolerance, only that it has which is essentially the point of the speech. Islam can be better than its worst elements would have their followers believe.

    Unlike an academic or even pseudo-academic examination of a culture the purpose of Obama’s speech was communication and, hopefully, encouragement. Here seeking out and dwelling on the positive is not a vice even if positives are, at the moment, overwhelmed by the negative. This is a very common tactic on the individual level. You often may choose to approach someone with whom you are having many problems by grasping the positive and trying to build on that as opposed to an ‘honest’ evaluation where negatives get proportionally as much or more mention than the positive.

    The right’s basic tactic in addressing Islam is the Ann Coutler idea, “kill their leaders and convert them to Christianity”. Like Coutler, they like to be all talk…they don’t have the guts (or perhaps they have enough common sense) to actually try such a stupid idea. But here in the real world this isn’t going to happen and you’re not going to establish a relationship with a message of ‘you’re basically all rotten people so shape up’.

  13. Boonton,
    You reach. You stretch. You fall down.

    There’s an open debate on whether the compass was transmitted to Europe via the ME from China.

    You omit (or developed independently. And seeing that their is open debate … Doesn’t that mean it isn’t settled. When their was open debate about the inflationary Universe, presenting it as a open and shut case wouldn’t be true or helpful.

    “Mass printing”, i.e., employing gangs of people to transcribe texts was well established in the Roman era and before. As noted in the JihadWatch quoted piece, publishing was rejected by the Islamic world.

    If “timeless poetry and music” is not appreciated outside of the Islamic world, how is that a world contribution? And calliing “Sufi music” a major contribution is to damn with faint praise.

    s factcheck points out Muslims physicians were famous in Chauncer’s time, even in the Christian world.

    Oops. The existence of “famous physicians” in a period of European world development as the West was clawing itself back from pre-Bronze age industrial levels is again damning with faint praise. The claim made was of contirbutions to “understanding of how disease spreads and how it can be healed” … which we enumerate now … (crickets chirp). What modern understanding of germ and diseases were developed in the Islamic world?

    On religious tolerance … Oops. Unless Dhimmi status = tolerance. Next week, Obama travels to the deep south and explains in a KKK address how Black chattel slavery was evidence of tolerance. By that measure Rome was tolerant.

    I don’t know why you keep bringing up Ms Coulter. Do you read her work extensively? Do you think I do? I had mentioned specifically an address to which I’d compare this … of Solzhenitsyn. Is there some reason you think “kill and convert” needs to be discussed here? Do you think it is what I’m advocating. The only thing (textually from what I’ve said here) that it seems reasonable that you might infer is that I’d suggest honest engagement to be what is required, which is also not what I think Mr Obama did. What he did is called in the vernacular “putting lipstick on a pig.” This not a “turning” point in Western/Islamic relations … it is in fact turning it way back.

    But here in the real world this isn’t going to happen and you’re not going to establish a relationship with a message of ‘you’re basically all rotten people so shape up’.

    You’re also not going to establish a relationship with a people by reinforcing the lies they tell themselves that keep them from breaking out developing on their own. Through the 18th and 19th century the Islamic world reinforced and established the fiction that it continued to be far in advance of the West, a situation which had existed 8 centuries earlier. Mr Obama is continuing a well established tradition within Islam of self-delusion (a practice which has long diplomatic tradition in the West).

  14. You omit (or developed independently…

    True but pointless. The measure is that Muslims took the compass, used it and improved upon it. The value of a culture isn’t in whether or not they passed useful stuff onto Europe. And again the straw man appears here, did Obama say the invented the compass?

    “Mass printing”, i.e., employing gangs of people to transcribe texts was well established in the Roman era and before. As noted in the JihadWatch quoted piece, publishing was rejected by the Islamic world.

    Actually you are underestimating what this entails and what it implies. Mass production of prayer scripts (even if handwritten) requires both writing ability by a large number of people and reading ability by an even larger set.

    If “timeless poetry and music” is not appreciated outside of the Islamic world, how is that a world contribution? And calliing “Sufi music” a major contribution is to damn with faint praise.

    Straw men again. First who said the poetry is not appreciated outside of the Islamic world? Second ‘major contribution’ wasn’t the phrase used but ‘cherished music’. You’re going to tell me now you know Sufi music is not cherished (as well as other forms of music) ?

    Oops. The existence of “famous physicians” in a period of European world development as the West was clawing itself back from pre-Bronze age industrial levels is again damning with faint praise. The claim made was of contirbutions to “understanding of how disease spreads and how it can be healed” … which we enumerate now … (crickets chirp). What modern understanding of germ and diseases were developed in the Islamic world?

    So your beef is that the Islamic physicians of Chaucer’s time (mid 1300’s to 1400 AD) would compare poorly to a modern day physician? That’s a very useful insight. Should we bash Italians because the Roman physician Galen would never be allowed to practice medicine today? Let’s not even go near the mistakes the Greeks made about anatomy.

    Through the 18th and 19th century the Islamic world reinforced and established the fiction that it continued to be far in advance of the West, a situation which had existed 8 centuries earlier

    Yawn another straw man. Obama simply said that the Islamic world has, in its history done impressive things. He didn’t say it was more advanced than the west…didn’t even say it was more advanced 8 centuries ago (which arguably it might have been back then as you pointed out Europe was crawing its way back through the Bronze age)

    On religious tolerance … Oops. Unless Dhimmi status = tolerance.

    Beats being burned alive which sadly was the default choice for many eras of history accross many different religions.

    I don’t know why you keep bringing up Ms Coulter. Do you read her work extensively? Do you think I do? I had mentioned specifically an address to which I’d compare this … of Solzhenitsyn. Is there some reason you think “kill and convert” needs to be discussed here?

    Yes because her crude ‘kill and convert’ is a pithy way of summarizing a more serious idea that should be discussed.

    There’s two schools of thought at play here. One school basically views all cultures as essentially the same. They may be advanced or unadvanced, they may have fallen behind or been co-opted by radicals but essentially cultures are like human bodies. They have different parts that serve various functions. Different bodies might have parts that do a better or worse job than other bodies but essentially you’re talking about the same animal here.

    The other school sees Islam as an exceptional culture….and that’s not exceptional in a good way. It views Islam as holding special power over is followers preventing modern ideas from being adopted and even preventing modern notions of civilized behavior. This POV sees Islam as fundamentally incompatitable with the rest of humanity and unable to ‘get along’. Of course this doesn’t really tell us much about how the problem should be approached….Coutler’s ‘kill and convert’ being very crude but a ‘solution’ which follows logically from the premises offered. While not all members of this school would side with Coutler on ‘kill and convert’, most would assert that the essential relationship with Islam is and will be conflict and that any attempts to find common ground with Muslims are doomed to failure.

    And let’s face it, the bulk of the criticism of this speech is not about petty back and forth over who made the ultimate refinements to the compass or whether Sufi music is worth anything. It’s about whether an attempt should be made to engage the Muslim world in a positive manner or whether it should be nothing but conflict. Obama here is firmly in the mainstream. Even Bush didn’t accept this formulation of the state of affairs. Jihadwatch is essentially in this camp hence its talking points revolve around finding and massaging data to support the exceptionalism thesis.

    I find myself skeptical of the exceptionalism thesis for several reasons:

    1. Many social science thesises are easy to find cherry picked ‘evidence’ for which enables them to live more or less forever even if they are false. Scientific thesises tend to succeed or fail in more definitive ways. (i.e. Einstein was either right about gravity bending light or he wasn’t)

    2. This idea seemed to take off big time after 9/11 which makes me suspect it was an overly emotional reaction rather than an objective examination of the sweep of history.

    3. I do not see a good argument for why Islam has exceptional traits that make it fundamentally different from all other human belief systems. In essence, I don’t see the argument for why Islam is a ‘killer ap’ that short circuits all reasoning ability and fundamentally changes all human relations.

    Rather than spending another dozen posts piddling around about who invented algebra or asking if Islamic Mosques are aesthetically more pleasing than Christian catherdials or Buddhist towers….I think it would be more productive to examine this idea head on and take a position on it.

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