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.

Read more at City Journal

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

Israel’s Friendship with Iraqi Kurds, and Why Iran Opposes It

In May 2022, the Iraqi parliament passed a law “criminalizing normalization and establishment of relations with the Zionist entity,” banning even public discussion of ending the country’s 76-year state of war with Israel. The bill was a response to a conference, held a few months prior, addressing just that subject. Although the gathering attracted members of various religious and ethnic groups, it is no coincidence, writes Suzan Quitaz, that it took place in Erbil, capital of Iraqi Kurdistan:

Himdad Mustafa, an independent researcher based in Erbil, to whom the law would be applied, noted: “When 300 people gathered in Erbil calling for peace and normalization with Israel, the Iraqi government immediately passed a law criminalizing ties with Israel and Israelis. The law is clearly aimed at Kurds.” . . . Qais al-Khazali, secretary-general of Asaib Ahl al-Haq (Coordination Framework), a powerful Iranian-backed Shiite militia, slammed the conference as “disgraceful.”

Himdad explains that the criminalization of Israeli-Kurdish ties is primarily driven by “Kurd-phobia,” and that Kurd-hatred and anti-Semitism go hand-in-hand.

One reason for that is the long history of cooperation Israel and the Kurds of Iraq; another is the conflict between the Kurdish local government and the Iran-backed militias who increasingly control the rest of the country. Quitaz elaborates:

Israel also maintains economic ties with Kurdistan, purchasing Kurdish oil despite objections from Iraq’s central government in Baghdad. A report in the Financial Times discusses investments by many Israeli companies in energy, development sectors, and communications projects in Iraqi Kurdistan, in addition to providing security training and purchasing oil. Moreover, in a poll conducted in 2009 in Iraqi Kurdistan, 71 percent of Kurds supported normalization with Israel. The results are unsurprising since, historically, Israel has had cordial ties with the Kurds in a generally hostile region where Jews and Kurds have fought against the odds with the same Arab enemy in their struggles for a homeland.

The Iranian regime, through its proxies in the Iraqi government, is the most significant source of Kurd-phobia in Iraq and the driving factor fueling tensions. In addition to their explicit threat to Israel, Iranian officials frequently threaten the Kurdish region, and repeatedly accuse the Kurds of working with Israel.

Read more at Jersualem Center for Public Affairs

More about: Iran, Iraq, Israel-Arab relations, Kurds