11 January 2004
In last week�s edition of the Sunday Express, columnist Robert Kilroy-Silk made a series of remarks about the Arab world which left Britain�s Muslim and Arab communities shocked and deeply upset.
In a Monty Pythonesque way ("What have the Romans ever done for us?") Mr Kilroy- Silk asked whether the Arabs have contributed anything useful � other than oil - to world civilisation: �Can you think of anything? Anything really useful? Anything really valuable? Something we really need, could not do without? No, nor can I.�
Which can only mean that Mr Kilroy -Silk should have been spending a little less time in front of the cameras and a bit more time swotting up on his history.
In the middle of the 9th century CE - a time when scholars refer to Europe as being in the Dark Ages (476 C.E � 1000 CE) - the Arab-Islamic civilization stretched from its heartland in Arabia to the Atlantic coast and Spain in the West, the plains of northern India in the East, and deep into the steppes of Central Asia to the north. It formed one vast multifaith realm, larger even than the Roman Empire at its height, with Arabic being the universal language of learning. It constituted a massive common market.
Baghdad was the fabulously wealthy capital of the empire, the Abbasid Caliphate. Its fame would be celebrated in stories in the Arabian Nights. Here, in this Arab and Muslim city, a great cultural and economic nexus developed which drew on knowledge and ideas from other civilisations in Greece, Rome, Byzantium, India and China. These influences were forged into a brilliant new culture under an inclusive Muslim civilisation that was eager to learn and spread learning.
As you would expect, the Arab-Islamic world in return influenced surrounding cultures to an extraordinary degree. Baghdad was home to Muhammad ibn Musa al-Khwarizmi (c. 780 � 850), the Persian mathematician. Al-Khwarizmi�s book, Kitab al-Jabr Wal-Muqabala, is the oldest Arabic work on Algebra. Partially translated into Latin by Robert of Chester, the text served to introduce the science of algebra (from the Arabic al-jabr) to Europe. Our English word algorithm is, in fact, a corrupted version of this great Muslim mathematician�s name.
Al-Khwarizmi also made a lasting contribution to the field of astronomy by taking the first mathematical step from the Greek conception of a static universe to the Islamic one of a dynamic universe.
Muslim achievements in textiles, carpets, metalwork, glassmaking and bookbinding can be seen across the medieval and early modern European world.
The very paper on which you are reading this article was an innovation passed on to Europe courtesy of the Arabs. Its page numbers are to this day known as Arabic numerals.
It is no exaggeration to say that the European Renaissance, and therefore most of modern science, was based to a large extent on Arab scholarship.
Indeed, for much of the period in the thousand years between the 8th and 18th centuries the leading civilisation on the planet in terms of spread and creativity was Islam � whose blessed Prophet Muhammad, was also an Arab.
Even now, Arabic continues to be the common language of worship for the world�s 1.5 billion Muslims. You may not know it, but even you already speak a lot of Arabic. Hundreds of our everyday words in the English language including admiral, elephant, lemon, magazine and traffic, are Arabic in origin.
In his article Mr Kilroy- Silk failed to distinguish between the terrorists who perpetrated the September 11 atrocities and the ordinary Arab peoples who constitute a population of over 200 million and form the majority in over twenty countries in the Middle East and North Africa.
He wrote: "We're told that the Arabs loathe us." Going on to say, "What do they think we feel about them?", and then, "that we admire them for being suicide bombers, limb-amputators, women repressors?"
Unfortunately Mr Kilroy-Silk didn�t restrict himself to attacking the actions of a particular criminal few. As the Muslim author Ziauddin Sardar commented, "It is like blaming Yorkshire people for the actions of the Yorkshire Ripper�.
The article also displayed a less than adequate knowledge of basic geography.
�The Arab world has not exactly earned our respect, has it? Iran is a vile, terrorist-supporting regime - part of the axis of evil."
Iran is not, and never has been, an Arab country. Its civilisation, culture and language are entirely separate from those of Arab countries. Iran and Arab countries are however united by the Islamic faith.
Mr Kilroy-Silk says that "we have thousands of asylum seekers from Iran, Iraq, Algeria, Egypt, Libya, Yemen, Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries living happily in this country on social security". As a millionaire Mr Kilroy-Silk may not know this but no- one lives happily on social security, least of all people who have fled persecution in their own country.
The Muslim community in Britain has been facing unprecedented levels of abuse, intolerance and physical hostility since the 9/11 atrocities. Our mosques have also been repeatedly vandalised, set fire to and in a couple of instances, bleeding pigs heads have been thrown through front doors of mosques and into the prayer halls. Even the dead in their graves have not been left in peace as we have had our cemeteries desecrated.
Partly for this reason, responsible governments do not allow unlimited freedom of speech but enforce laws which clearly forbid incitement to racial hatred.
During the Second World War, in Nazi Germany, we saw what this kind of demonisation of entire peoples led to. Our challenge today is to make the cry "never again" real for all the people in this country, whatever their faith or ethnic background.