Friday 16 January 2004

What have the Arabs ever done for us?

I was gonna leave this story alone, I've always hated Kilroy and all his daytime telly kin with a virulent passion. I knew that under the slippery, slimey, oh-so-nice exterior the man was as fake as GW Bush's conscience. However the more this story has run on the more I feel compelled to add the little voice of codshit to the argument. Kilroy said he wasn't talking about Arab people but Arab regimes, however not once in his article is there a mention of any specific regime or regimes, ipso facto one must conclude that his tirade was the outburst of an ignorant rascist bigot. At the end of the day everyone is entitled to speak their mind, whatever their opinions, but that doesn't mean the rest of us have to agree with it. This whole thing wreaks of double standards, if Kilroy have been referring to Jews or Negroes then they probably would have locked him up already, but Arabs are the "bad guys" now so it's ok to insult them and their culture. This anti-Arab stuff seeping into society is turning the clock back to a time which we should know better than to try and recreate.

It is pretty universally acknowledged that an informed world view is not a prerequisite for success in daytime television. Even so, Robert Kilroy-Silk's anti-Arab diatribe is not only offensive and stupid; it also speaks of a startling degree of ignorance.

"We owe Arabs nothing," he wrote. "Apart from oil, which was discovered, is produced and is paid for by the west, what do they contribute?" Arabs, according to the sage of the sob story, are "suicide bombers, limb amputators, women repressors".

It is slightly ironic that, at the time this balderdash was printed in the Sunday Express, Mr Kilroy-Silk was topping up his studio tan in a Spanish beach resort. Had he been in the mood for a slightly more demanding cultural shift, he could have gone to the south of that country, to Granada in the province of Andalucia, where he could have seen some of the most beautiful architecture in Europe. Arab architecture. Planned, built and exquisitely decorated by the ancestors of the people Mr Kilroy-Silk apparently thinks so inferior.

It is not only in Spain that Arab architecture has left a European mark. The pointed arch, so eagerly adopted by medieval builders and known today as gothic, was an idea copied from the east, and brought to the west by the early crusaders. And while those religiously crazed bigots were burning and slaughtering in the holy land, Arab poets, mathematicians, astronomers, philosophers and scientists were advancing human civilisation to unprecedented peaks of sophistication.

The Abbasid caliphate of Baghdad, which flourished for half a millennium from about AD750, was arguably the most dazzling of regimes the world had seen up to that date. Arab scholars picked up from where the Greek ancients had stopped centuries earlier, and extended human understanding in virtually every field. As every schoolboy knows, the mathematical concept of zero was discovered by Arabs, when northern Europeans were still wearing horns on their helmets. In fact, as a Guardian reader pointed out this week, every schoolboy is probably wrong: the zero idea almost certainly came from India, but, crucially, it was first written down by an Arab.

Writing is a key part of the Arab nation's bequest to the world. Paper was introduced from China before the end of the first Christian millennium, freeing Arab writers from the costly straitjacket of parchment and papyrus, some 300-400 years before paper reached western Europe. The result was a torrent of poetry and prose, philosophy and scholarship, learning and entertainment. This was the era of The Thousand and One Nights and of vast public libraries. There were astronomical observatories, pharmaceutical laboratories and medical schools. And most of these were flourishing before England's King Alfred was born.

Mr Kilroy-Silk might argue that these are spent glories, and that the modern Arab culture is debased. He would be compounding his ignorance to do so. More poetry than prose is published in Arabic today. The visual arts are vibrant. Music, both popular and traditional, is flourishing. Calligraphy, that most elegant of arts, continues to fascinate users of the flowing Arabic scripts. Arab cuisine - Lebanese mainly, but increasingly Egyptian and other north African - is being belatedly discovered in the west.

For sure, the Arab world has more than its share of despotic rulers and religious bigots. But to lump everyone together under Mr Kilroy-Silk's puerile labels is not only false, but plain daft. Cultures and their values are not only measured by historical achievement, but also in terms of day-to-day living.

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