Monday, August 23, 2010

Of Bits and Paper

I am watching the documentary When the Moors Ruled in Europe. I marvel at the facts presented in this account of Europe's history from the Dark Ages through the Renaissance, and am struck by the documentary's relevance at this point in America's history.

The fact presented early in the documentary that most struck me was that one of the most transformational influences that Muslims brought to Europe was the introduction of paper-making. At the time, vellum and parchment were difficult and expensive to produce and therefore rare. Likewise, the prevailing culture held literacy as the province of the privileged anointed few. In this context, the ability to produce paper inexpensively amounted to nothing short of a revolution. And this technology was brought by a culture that believed in the democratization of literacy and learning. The intersection of technology and a new way of thinking transformed life in a way that allowed light to begin to shine through the clouds of the Dark Ages.

In today's context where we find ourselves debating the merits of a free and open internet against those who seek to impose a caste system of access, this piece of history resonates deeply. Especially as we see in elements of our society a resurgent wave of bigotry and xenophobia being fired scattershot at all Muslims, we would do well to remind ourselves of how and where are cultural heritages are deeply intertwined, and with them, our shared fate. As fundamentalism on both sides of the divide fight against the very ideas of enlightenment, scientific curiosity, exploration, and understanding, we need to revisit the lessons and gifts that the early Muslim emigres brought with them to the land of the vandals, instead of seeking to vandalize their culture, and with it, our own.