From Barbarian invasions to Twitter

Wednesday, 21 August 2013

With the collapse of the Roman Empire around the 5th century AD, western Europe entered a period of stagnation lasting almost a millennium – now referred to as the Middle Ages.

It was a period of barbarian invasions, of collapse of urban civilisation. With the emergence of Islam, the Byzantine empire comprising former eastern Roman Empire territories of North Africa and the Middle East fell to the inheritors of the mantle of the Prophet.

This sparked a unification of Christendom, under the banner of the Crusades, which sought to wrest control of the Holy Land from the Muslims.

(There are many who believe this very battle continues to this day.)

Most crucially, however, the Middle Ages were a period of intellectual stagnation. While advances in agriculture saw increases in crop yields, this also led to the organisation of western society into village structures where peasants were held hostage by the requirement to pay rent or provide labour to feudal overlords. Knights provided military support to these feudal masters in exchange for a privileged lifestyle.

If the military lifestyle was threatened, feudal masters were replaced.

In retrospect, there is every possibility that this system might have continued unchecked to this very day were it not for the invention of a significant piece of technology in the 15th Century.

The technology was movable type invented by Johannes Gutenberg.

Before Gutenberg, books as we know them today did not exist. Knowledge was reproduced primarily on hand-written scrolls. As a result, even a small tome could take months to be copied. The only people who had the resources to do this were the monasteries – who automatically acquired a stranglehold on the spread of knowledge, censoring anything that did not meet the political imperatives of the Church.

Gutenberg built the first press in Mainz, Germany, in 1457. The effect was electrifying. By 1480, there were 110 presses in operation of which 50 were in Italy.

Small wonder then that Italy became the centre of what we today refer to as the Renaissance – the bridge between the Middle Ages and the modern era which saw a flourishing of intellectual development which was to transform the world.

But while the stranglehold of religious thought was swept away in western Europe, the same was not true of the former Byzantine empire now under the rule of Islamic conquerors and their descendants.

Islamic doctrine is passed on by rote. This had the effect of making it inherently democratic in its dissemination in that every person had the ability to reproduce knowledge by the simple act of learning it by heart from another person. At the same time, the fact that the doctrine is decreed to be immutable means that no variations from it or any thought that contradicts it will be tolerated.

With this ability to stifle debate under the guise of traditional values, these nations saw a concentration of power and wealth in the hands of autocrats.

The introduction of social media into the mix was every bit as much a spark to a powder keg as the introduction of movable type was in Europe 500 years ago.

Social media allowed all groups dissatisfied with their despotic overlords to mobilise swiftly and spontaneously. The Arab Spring, as it is now referred to, saw the overthrowing in rapid succession of regimes in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and Yemen.

The Egypt revolution that toppled Hosni Mubarak was a truly universal affair, reflecting the views of the youth, of the intelligentsia, labour, liberals, leftists, secularists, Coptic Christians, and the Muslim Brotherhood.

Of these, the Muslim Brotherhood was the most organised with a structured support base of around 600 000 paid up members. Unsurprisingly, Mohamed Morsi as their candidate was elected president.

Unlike South Africa, where Nelson Mandela's election ushered in a period of inclusive participation for all sectors of the population, Morsi dropped the ball. The new government began to move in an increasingly sectarian Islamist direction, culminating in a decree in November that in effect gave the president unlimited powers.

Tens of thousands of protesters took to the streets in response.

On 22 December, a constitution backed by Morsi was approved by 64 percent of voters in a referendum. The opposition cried fraud.

By 30 June this year, the anniversary of Morsi's election, millions took to the streets of Cairo demanding his resignation.

As I pen these words, more than 800 people have been killed in Egypt over the past week by the military regime which overthrew the country's democratically elected president. It has been an unspeakably brutal wave of violence with women and children shot in the head and from behind at close range.

Could this tragedy have been avoided?

As human beings, many of us suffer the fundamental flaw of believing that democratic systems exist to enforce the will of the majority.

I am not one of those. I believe that the proper role of a democratic society is to protect the rights of the individual, with every individual enjoying the same inalienable rights.

These rights imply freedom of thought, which in turn implies freedom of religious thought, which in turn requires separation of church and state – secularism.

Morsi sought to impose a particular Islamist system of government upon a country which, in spite of its overwhelmingly Islamic composition, has been largely secular for decades. By failing to embrace all sectors of society, he left large chunks feeling marginalised.

Unfortunately, this included the military who saw their privilege threatened and took steps to "remedy" the situation.

It's a route which our country might well have taken had we had less capable leadership 20 years ago. We should count ourselves lucky.