Keith Burnett: The dangers of being indifferent to intolerance

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I HAVE just been on short holiday in Andalusia, visiting Granada and Cordoba. While travelling through that beautiful landscape, I had with me Tariq Ali’s novel Shadows of the Pomegranate Tree on the collapse of Muslim civilisation in Spain.

My reading reminded me that places are far more than what we see before us now. They are layered with histories and memories without which we can only ever touch the surface of life, and certainly cannot know ourselves. And within these histories are both wonders and warnings.

The sights of southern Spain are overlaid with stories – and Andalusia is full of them. The earliest known cave paintings are found in Malaga, and the region was known to the Phoenicians and the Greeks. Andalusia was once ruled by Vandals, Visigoths and the Byzantine Empire. And it was the Islamic Empire of Al-Andalus, a place of global economic and cultural power.

In Cordoba, an extraordinary civilised society was exemplified by the works of that true genius of the Middle Ages, Moses Maimonides. His statue stands in Tiberiadus Square in the city’s old Jewish Quarter. The synagogue also remains. And yet Maimonides’ family like so many others fled Cordoba as waves of intolerance swept across southern Spain.

Tariq Ali’s novel also portrays the daily human wounds and pain from growing persecution. It opens with a scene in which an official orders the burning off all books in Granada in order to destroy Moorish culture. Moorish citizens are dismayed and helpless – appalled at the loss of Islamic understanding of medicine, science and astronomy that European Christians could not replicate. A selection of medical texts are saved, but most are burnt.

The image of burning books is anathema to scholars. Yet alongside the destruction of texts, our world is full of histories of attempts to destroy cultures and people, to rub them out for simply being who they are. Ali’s novel has too many companions. It sits alongside Stefan Zweig’s memoir of the Jewish community in fin-de-siècle Vienna.

Our own century industrialised the process of destruction, turning to ash not only libraries but peoples. When I read Physicists and the Reich, I am confronted with the story of how my own academic forebears fled their homelands, as others benefitted from newly vacated positions in universities.

At the University of Sheffield, Hans Krebs was forced to emigrate to the UK because he was not allowed – as a Jew – to practice medicine in his native Germany. His Nobel Prize-winning research is still a focus for academic endeavour today, so I felt a chill of what might have been lost when only this week a colleague showed me the list of those designated for immediate arrest if the Nazi’s had invaded Britain. In the neat type, the familiar name of our own professor.

History is not another country, it is the narrative of human experience. It bleeds into geography and politics, into literature and architecture. It both gives us depth and alerts us to the shudder of cruelty we cannot ignore. And it can be used in many ways, as a flag for nationalism or a warning against its extremes.

Reading about the Muslim community in Andalusia alongside Maimonides’ Guide For The Perplexed, I felt a feeling of awful loss matched by deep anxiety for our own times. Cities such as Cordoba were once home to multiple cultures. And I have been lucky to have grown up in a county in which Muslims, Jews, Christians, Buddhists, Hindus, Sikhs and atheists have all been able to live in an atmosphere of mutual toleration.

I greatly fear that we might be sleepwalking away from this good life. History tells me that if I shrug my shoulders at intolerance, I am making a terrible mistake. It also tells me something of what I need to do, and gives me the determination that we as an academic community will not suffer this loss without a fight.

How can we keep ourselves the sort of tolerant society in which ideas, enterprise and innovation can flourish? How can we stay open to the stories we need to hear, to the insights of those who are not of our own tribe?

Answering this means I must confront another truth about history. It is still being written. I will have my own page in these many stories told in many voices. And so will you. And so will we together. What we did or didn’t do, what we valued and what we cast aside. Our hopes and our cruelties. All of these are our own pages in the as-yet-unwritten volumes of our own age.

What will history say about us, about me? As a vice-chancellor, I believe I have a duty to gather together with my colleagues and make a city-state within our university in which all can speak and be heard. A society that is intolerant does not deserve to survive. An intolerant society will not survive. The world’s many histories caution us – we forget at our peril.