Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Further thoughts on "Ornament of the World"

My last post contained thoughts about Ornament of the World: How Muslims, Jews, and Christians Created a Culture of Tolerance in Medieval Spain. My history book club discussed the book tonight.

It seems that some governments manage to get multi-ethnic societies to live together with relative tolerance. This book focuses on Andalucia under the Umayyad Caliphate of Cordoba which did so. So too did Tito's Yugoslavia, and the Abbasid Caliphate of Bagdad. These were coercive governments, and we questioned whether Federations (the United States, Switzerland, the European Union) were another, less coercive model to achieve that end. It would seem that a state composed of many ethnic groups would wish to find ways that they could live in peace with each other.

It also seems that trade relations are facilitated by peaceful relations. Thus there are economic incentives for different ethnic groups living in close proximity to do so peacefully. Presumably there are economic institutions that evolve or are developed to promote tolerance.

The author, Maria Rosa Menocal, focuses on the coexistence of religious beliefs from Islam, Judaism, and Christianity to coexist side by side with each other with more secular philosophy derived from the ancient Greek thinkers the cities of medieval Spain. She also describes the interplay of literature, architecture, decoration, clothing styles, and music of the different ethnic groups in medieval Spain. This raises a question:

  • Does a political and economic system that promotes multi-ethnic tolerance lead to a rich cultural evolution?
  • Does dialog among cultures and a cultural evolution make possible political and economic systems that maintain tolerance among different ethnic groups?
  • Is the causal relation circular, with some cultural changes fostering political and economic institutions that promote peace, and with those institutions promoting further cultural evolution.
The book was written in the aftermath of the breakup of Yugoslavia and the ethnic cleansing that followed. The Golden Age of the Umayyads eventually led to the Christian monoculture of Spain of the Inquisition. How is it that a society of tolerance can degenerate into one of intolerance and hatred?

We could not come to a conclusion on these questions, but it is interesting to ask them.

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