This article was published in Times of India's Edit Page on August 1, 2009
By Raza Elahi
US president Barack Obama's historic speech in Cairo, which called for a new beginning between the United States and Muslims, had references to Islam's contribution to civilisation. It is a befitting reply to Islam bashers, who have boxed Islamic culture, particularly Arab culture, into crude stereotypes. Post-9/11 Islam-bashing has almost become fashionable among western scholars. A whole bunch of intellectuals has sprung up in the West, linking Arab culture to violence, hate and fanaticism. Any violence committed by any group, or any unrest in Palestine or Iraq, is a specific response to a specific pathological, political circumstance, not an endemic variable of Arab culture as Samuel Huntingdon's ''clash of civilisations'' and other western theories describe such face-offs.
Since time immemorial the essence of Arab culture has been trade, not war or suicide bombings. The region gave birth to civilisations such as the Assyrian and Babylonian in Iraq, Phoenician and Canaan in Syria and the Pharaonic in Egypt. After the advent of Islam, each of these cities was a major capital of huge empires through various stages of history that presented the world with sciences, art, culture, philosophical thought and civilisations that form the basis of study in all major modern universities.
Islam was an extraordinary gift to the world of business with its pragmatic, tolerant, humane, logical and international ethos at a time when other cultures were busy burning witches and widows in other parts of the so-called civilised world. The evolution of market hubs such as Baghdad and Cairo, the emergence of Arabic as the business lingua franca from Spain to Sindh, the missionary activities of Arab merchants in South East Asia were all legacies of the advent of Islam.
Seven centuries ago, Baghdad and Damascus were world financial hubs. The Arab world, under the Abbasid caliphs, had trade relations with all major nations from China to Italy. The Assyrians mapped out a road network to enable them to transport African ivory, Caspian furs and Indian spices across their empire. Two millennia before the advent of the dollar and pound sterling, the gold coin, Persian daric, introduced by Darius the Great, was the currency of choice from Greece to the kingdoms of India. The financiers of Mecca and Damascus set up letters of credit, bills of exchange, foreign agencies, primitive contract laws and custom duties centuries before the bankers of Renaissance Florence and Tudor London.
Empires came and went, kingdoms were established and fell, but trade remains one of the institutions that truly defines Arab culture. The earliest civilisations of the Middle East evolved on the banks of the Nile, the Tigris and the Euphrates. Their trading links with Mohenjadaro on the Indus, Dilmun in the Arabian Gulf and the Hellenic ports of the Aegean islands demonstrate that international markets existed centuries before Christ.
The Silk Road to China, the Amber Route to the Baltic, the evolution of trade-linked cities such as Petra, Baghdad, Mecca, Sidon and Damascus were the centres of Arab power politics for centuries. From ancient times till modern days trade activities have always flourished in the region.
The modern example is the rapid progress of the ancient trading and pearling settlement of Dubai, which was on the trade route between Mesopotamia and the Indus Valley civilisation. In 1830, it was taken over by a sect of the Bani Yas clan led by the Maktoum family that still rules Dubai. The elders of this family decided to build on the expertise of the inhabitants of Dubai and concentrate on trade. This policy powers the economic miracle of Dubai.
The ruling family recognised the value of international trade as an engine for wealth creation decades before the petrodollar era. When oil was discovered in 1960, the bulk of its revenue was invested in creating the world's biggest man-made harbour in Dubai's Jebal Ali. Today, some estimates peg Dubai's non-oil revenues at over 90 per cent of its GDP, and the average per capita income in excess of $19,000.
Excellent infrastructure coupled with business acumen has helped the nationals to expand their trading horizons. Dubai encouraged Indian, Yemeni, Lebanese and Persian traders to settle. At a time when socialism and command economies were prevalent in other parts of the world, Dubai was unique in its preference for an open economy and regional trade. At no time, however, has the Dubai government forgotten its Islamic roots. It is the government's endeavour to ensure that no Muslim will need to travel more than 500 metres to pray in a mosque. Dubai is certainly a winning mix of trade and religion.
Commentators who have concluded the Islamic world is a 'failed and violent' society are wrong as religion and trade walk hand in hand in Islamic culture. Obama's approach to the Islamic world is a positive shift in official US policy, and some compensation for the hostile environment created by Islam bashers.