There is an Arab pain and a volatility in the face of judgment by outsiders that stem from a deep and enduring sense of humiliation. A vast chasm separates the poor standing of Arabs in the world today from their history of greatness. In this context, their injured pride is easy to understand.
In the narrative of history transmitted to schoolchildren throughout the Arab world and reinforced by the media, religious scholars and laymen alike, Arabs were favored by divine providence. They had come out of the Arabian Peninsula in the 7th century, carrying Islam from Morocco to faraway Indonesia. In the process, they overran the Byzantine and Persian empires, then crossed the Strait of Gibraltar to Iberia, and there they fashioned a brilliant civilization that stood as a rebuke to the intolerance of the European states to the north. Cordoba and Granada were adorned and exalted in the Arab imagination. Andalusia brought together all that the Arabs favored — poetry, glamorous courts, philosophers who debated the great issues of the day.
If Islam’s rise was spectacular, its fall was swift and unsparing. This is the world that the great historian Bernard Lewis explored in his 2002 book “What Went Wrong?” The blessing of God, seen at work in the ascent of the Muslims, now appeared to desert them. The ruling caliphate, with its base in Baghdad, was torn asunder by a Mongol invasion in the 13th century. Soldiers of fortune from the Turkic Steppes sacked cities and left a legacy of military seizures of power that is still the bane of the Arabs. Little remained of their philosophy and literature, and after the Ottoman Turks overran Arab countries to their south in the 16th century, the Arabs seemed to exit history; they were now subjects of others.
The coming of the West to their world brought superior military, administrative and intellectual achievement into their midst — and the outsiders were unsparing in their judgments. They belittled the military prowess of the Arabs, and they were scandalized by the traditional treatment of women and the separation of the sexes that crippled Arab society.
Even as Arabs insist that their defects were inflicted on them by outsiders, they know their weaknesses. Younger Arabs today can be brittle and proud about their culture, yet deeply ashamed of what they see around them. They know that more than 300 million Arabs have fallen to economic stagnation and cultural decline. They know that the standing of Arab states along the measures that matter — political freedom, status of women, economic growth — is low. In the privacy of their own language, in daily chatter on the street, on blogs and in the media, and in works of art and fiction, they probe endlessly what befell them.