Saturday, December 04, 2010

What Really Happened in Africa?

By the year 600, most of Africa had embraced the Christian religion. Although more widespread in the north, Christianity was found south of the Sahara as well. It was not universally adopted, as there were many Jews in Africa, especially on the east coast, and some of the primitive pre-religious belief systems, such as animism, survived in isolated regions.

Historians disagree about what happened to Christianity after the Muslim armies swept across north Africa in the late 600's and early 700's, and dominated southern parts of the continent in the following centuries. Was Christianity totally destroyed? Did the Islamic invasions succeed in removing all traces of the faith? Most Christians met one of three fates: they were executed, they converted to Islam, or they fled. But historians debate whether or not there were some who survived and remained in the conquered territories.

The conventional historical view is that the conquest of North Africa by the Islamic Umayyad Caliphate between AD 647–709 effectively ended Christianity in Africa for several centuries. The prevailing view is that the Church at that time lacked the backbone of a monastic tradition and was still suffering from the aftermath of heresies including the so-called Donatist heresy, and this contributed to the earlier obliteration of the Church in the present day Maghreb. Some historians contrast this with the strong monastic tradition in Coptic Egypt, which is credited as a factor that allowed the Coptic Church to remain the majority faith in that country until around after the 14th century.

However, new scholarship has appeared that disputes this. There are reports that the Christian faith persisted in the region from Tripolitania (present-day western Libya) to present-day Morocco for several centuries after the completion of the Islamic conquest by 700. A Christian community is recorded in 1114 in Qal'a in central Algeria. There is also evidence of religious visits after 850 to tombs of Christians outside of the city of Carthage, and evidence of religious contacts with Christians surviving in Muslim-occupied Spain. In addition, calendar reforms adopted in Europe at this time were disseminated amongst the indigenous Christians of Tunis, which would have not been possible had there been an absence of contact with Christians in other parts of the world.

Local Christian communities came under even more pressure when the Muslim fundamentalist regimes of the Almohads and Almoravids came into power, and the record shows demands made that the local Christians of Tunis to convert to Islam. We still have reports of Christian inhabitants and a bishop in the city of Kairouan around 1150 AD - a significant report, since this city was founded by Muslims around 680 AD as their administrative center after their conquest. A letter in Church archives from the 14th century shows that there were still four bishoprics left in North Africa, admittedly a sharp decline from the over four hundred bishoprics in existence at the time of the Islamic conquest. Berber Christians continued to live in Tunis and Nefzaoua in the south of Tunisia up until the early 15th century, and the first quarter of the 15th century, we even read that the native Christians of Tunis, though much assimilated, extended their church, perhaps because the last Christians from all over the Maghreb had gathered there.

By the early 1800's, some regions of Africa persecuted Christians to the extent that these religious communities were secret churches, meeting in homes or remote locations, using codewords to identify themselves to each other and avoid police detection.

Thursday, December 02, 2010

British Mistakes, American Honesty

If the English had only dealt with their America colonies a little more wisely, chances are that places like New York, Pennsylvania, and Ohio would still be part of the British Empire. Americans, at first, did not want independence from England: they merely wanted equal representation in parliament, and their rights as Englishmen under the Magna Carta. But instead, writes Jack Rakove (at Stanford University),

it took a peculiarly flawed process of framing bad policies and reacting to the resulting failures to convince the government of George III and Lord North that the best way to maintain the loyalty of their North American subjects was to make war on them.

Pushed toward the radical step of declaring independence, the Founding Fathers were actually, in the words of John M. Taylor (George Washington University),

two sets of leaders - an older group that led the move for independence, including Washington and the Adamses, and a younger group, including Madison and Alexander Hamilton, who came of age with it.

But both groups shared one characteristic, as Rakove sums it up:

For the revolutionaries of 1776, virtue meant the ability of citizens to subordinate private interest to public good.

This same quality can create hope in the future of any nation, including ours - as we begin the twenty-first century burdened with national government debt and outrageously high taxes, we can still find a good future, if we are willing to accept healthy cuts to government spending. We will have to set aside our "private interest" in getting something "for free" from the government - the pain of which is lessened somewhat by remembering that it isn't really "for free" if every American, from richest to poorest, is paying such high taxes - and work toward the "public good": reducing debt, reducing deficit, and reducing taxes.

History Has the Answers!

In the study of famous events and people, we often come across obvious and well-known truths. It doesn't surprise us to learn that Josef Stalin was evil (remember the forty million people he killed?), or that Mother Theresa was noble (anybody want to leave a life of middle-class ease to offer care to sick people in one of the world's poorest slums - all for no pay?). No, none of that is new information.

But only the careful and detailed study of history can give us the deeper understanding of these thumbnail icons: what are the details of Stalin's villainy, in its historical context, which can give us a clearer understanding of Stalin, of ourselves as humans, and of the philosophical definition of "evil"? Like, what exactly did Mother Theresa do, under which circumstances, and how do those details inform us about her, about what it means to be honorable, and about how humans beings can treat each other ethically?

Only thoughtful engagement with history - the analysis of facts, texts, and people - can yield these types of insight. And here we stand on the borderline between history and philosophy: the philosopher can give us the abstract definition of virtue or vice; the historian can give us detailed examples. Both are necessary if we are to broaden our minds.

Harvard's Aram Bakshian gives us an excellent example in his comments about George Washington. Our first president was, Bakshian writes, one of those

dignified, self-disciplined figures whose very virtues makes us uncomfortable about our own inadequate selves.

Here then we have three concepts worth investigating: dignified, self-disciplined, and virtues. These generalizations need specific examples: for this purpose we study biographies of Washington and learn the details of his life. Yale's Ron Chernow gives us further raw material. He writes that Washington was a man of

unerring judgment, sterling character, rectitude, steadfast patriotism, unflagging sense of duty, and civic-mindedness.

Again a list of categorical qualities which need concrete facts to help us envision them. In addition, we begin to see why this task is important: in the early twenty-first century in which we live, exploring the characteristics of George Washington will point us toward those things which we need to survive. We need "steadfast patriotism" instead of militant nationalism. We need "civic-mindedness" instead of a list of imagined grievances from self-proclaimed victims.

As we explore Washington's writings and biography, we can escape from the prison of viewing events from the narrow perspective of the moment of time in which we happen to live, and begin to explore the richer possibilities of viewing events from a timeless perspective, as we see

an eighteenth-century gentleman living by a clear code of honor that emphasized quiet courage, dedication to duty and stern self-control rather than getting in touch with one's inner child,

as Bakshian phrases it. Only from a narrow perspective would we refer

to Washington's "repressing" or "suppressing" his feelings, as if

this behavior on Washington's part was

a pathology rather than a triumph of character over impulse.

The historical perspective approaches the eternal perspective asymptotically - from which can gain amazing insights into human nature and character. We can find models who are, while not quite perfect, worth emulating - and among their admirable traits is the manner in which they considered their own imperfections:

No one judged himself more constantly or more severely than George Washington. From an early age, he strove to make himself a better person. He was a man of powerful passions and raging ambition, but he conquered his passion and he channeled his ambition honorably. Having mastered himself, he mastered the art of command; a man with no formal military training, leading what began as an armed rabble, he created and held together the first regular America army.

Washington's stellar ability to lead emerged from his ability to first lead himself - to be good at commanding others, one must first be good at commanding one's self.

As presiding officer at the constitutional convention and then as first president, he provided gravitas and a clear, uncluttered vision.

So, then, this is our task: let's go get several biographies of George Washington, study them, and find out why he is an excellent model. Then let's imitate him.