The Great Cities of the Muslim World, and Their Decline

March 3 2021

In Islamic Empires: Fifteen Cities that Define a Civilization, Justin Marozzi describes some of the great urban centers of the Middle East at their respective zeniths, reminding us of a time when they were larger, wealthier, and more sophisticated than anything Europe had to offer. Barnaby Crowcroft writes in his review:

If the book has an overriding argument, it is that great cities can be built and administered only by civilizations that have mastered ideas of good governance, which necessarily includes commitments to tolerance, cultural and economic openness, and cosmopolitanism.

This formula was as much about economic necessity as about ideological preference. For a large stretch of Marozzi’s story, Muslim rulers headed large multiethnic empires which stood at the center of global networks of trade. Too much sectarian strife would have destroyed their prosperity. Thus caliphs, sultans, and emirs from North Africa to Central Asia can be found undertaking what, even today, seem like remarkable acts of broadmindedness, such as subsidizing the construction of churches or synagogues in their capitals or making high-skilled minority communities feel at home.

Still, the caliphs of Baghdad’s 9th-century “golden age” remain in a league of their own. Marozzi’s portraits of the Abbasid rulers include an amateur scholar of Hebrew and Jewish law and another so dedicated to the recovery of Greek and Roman learning that he personally oversaw experiments designed to test classical scientific theories. These figures present a sorry contrast with the fate of Baghdad and its aspiring caliphs in the present day. [Islamic State’s self-proclaimed caliph], Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, . . . was as a grim personification of the kind of cultural suicide that has engulfed large, historic parts of the modern Middle East.

What strikes Marozzi is not just that once-great cities have declined, but that so many of them today actively repudiate the same qualities he holds responsible for their past greatness. Self-confident engagement with the world has been replaced with suspicion and populist hostility. . . . You can travel all over the region without finding an unexpunged edition of the great Persian poets Rumi and Hafez; yet a few years ago, one could find Henry Ford’s The International Jew in an airport bookstore in one of its major international hubs.

Several of the cities Marozzi describes—including Baghdad, Cairo, and Cordoba—were also once flourishing centers of Jewish civilization, with prosperous communities that produced enduring works of scholarship.

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Read more at City Journal

More about: Baghdad, ISIS, Jewish-Muslim Relations, Middle East, Tolerance

Reforms to Israel’s Judiciary Must Be Carefully Calibrated

The central topic of debate in Israel now is the new coalition government’s proposed reforms of the nation’s judiciary and unwritten constitution. Peter Berkowitz agrees that reform is necessary, but that “the proper scope and pace of reform, however, are open to debate and must be carefully calibrated.”

In particular, Berkowitz argues,

to preserve political cohesiveness, substantial changes to the structure of the Israeli regime must earn support that extends beyond these partisan divisions.

In a deft analysis of the conservative spirit in Israel, bestselling author Micah Goodman warns in the Hebrew language newspaper Makor Rishon that unintended consequences flowing from the constitutional counterrevolution are likely to intensify political instability. When a center-left coalition returns to power, Goodman points out, it may well repeal through a simple majority vote the major changes Netanyahu’s right-wing coalition seeks to enact. Or it may use the legislature’s expanded powers, say, to ram through laws that impair the religious liberty of the ultra-Orthodox. Either way, in a torn nation, constitutional counterrevolution amplifies division.

Conservatives make a compelling case that balance must be restored to the separation of powers in Israel. A prudent concern for the need to harmonize Israel’s free, democratic, and Jewish character counsels deliberation in the pursuit of necessary constitutional reform.

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Read more at RealClearPolitics

More about: Israel & Zionism, Israeli Judicial Reform