Civilisations Retrograde

by Samantha North on January 28, 2016

Globe

There are just a few menacing yet fascinating places left on Earth.

These places are usually active conflict zones or rugged areas where rebel groups lurk, nations with unfriendly governments, or otherwise unstable locations where battle has recently ended.

They have terrible reputations.

But nevertheless, these places are intriguing, because they weren’t always in trouble. Once upon a time every place had its heyday. Did the outside world perceive these places differently during times of peace and prosperity?

Iraq, now a sad unrecognisable shadow of its former self. But once, long ago, Baghdad was one of the Islamic world’s most magnificent cities, where the heart of an Empire beat during the Golden Age of Islam. In those days, Baghdad was well-known for its scholars, its philosophers, and its innovators.

Somalia, whose capital city Mogadishu was once the pre-eminent city in the Horn of Africa, making a fortune from its role as a major trading port with the Arabian Peninsula and India. For a long time, Somali Muslims and Ethiopian Christians even lived peacefully side by side. Eventually wars broke out, but nothing that would drag the country down far enough to become the failed state it is today.

During the Middle Ages, Somalia became a prosperous trading nation where Islam flourished and became powerful.  During the 1940s, although Somalia was an Italian colony home to over 22,000 Italians, the standard of living was one of the highest in the region, with a well-developed manufacturing industry.

Somalia later passed into the hands of the British, and finally gained its independence in 1960. But a military coup by Mohammed Siad Barre in 1969 and his establishment of a communist state heralded the beginning of Somalia’s slow descent into chaos.

Most notable is Afghanistan: known in the 1950s and 60s as a modern and progressive nation, where innovation was encouraged, where women’s equality was enshrined and upheld in law, where young people went to university to pursue their dreams unhindered by religious and political fanaticism.

During the final years of the Afghanistan invasion, British Defence Secretary Liam Fox once called Afghanistan ‘a broken 13th century country.’ This view still reflects common perceptions of Afghanistan and its inhabitants, who are often believed to be ungovernable barbarians living in a chaotic land.

In 2010, Afghan-American university president Mohammad Qayoumi, who left Afghanistan in the 1960s, made it his mission to educate the world about the country he had known and loved.

He assembled a wonderful photo essay, ‘Once Upon a Time in Afghanistan’, showcasing amazing images of an unrecognisable nation. Released online last month, the photos of Bill Podlich support Qayoumi’s theme and show Afghanistan from the perspective of an American family living there in the 60s.

Examining both collections is an uplifting, thought-provoking, yet melancholy experience. The photographs show Kabul’s female university students wearing skirts with their heads uncovered, studying alongside young men in science class, socialising casually at cinemas and coffee shops, shopping at record shops selling the latest Afghan and international hits.

Podlich’s pictures show Americans interacting normally with Afghans on the street in a relaxed manner, even with Podlich’s wife wearing a sleeveless Western dress.

Even more importantly, according to Qayoumi there was an efficient and organised government, a vibrant economy, and a strong tradition of law and order. Even the national carrier, Ariana Afghan Airlines, was reliable and well regarded internationally.

The country had many of the ingredients for great success and people had every reason to hope for a bright future during Afghanistan’s halcyon days.

How tragic then, to see the state of these nations today after decades of war, communism, and religious extremism have taken their heavy toll. The aforementioned three factors have a great deal to answer for, as these are the major causes of civilisational retrograde.

There are no excuses, no justifications. The wasted potential is immense, both for the country and for its people. Innovation, freedom of speech, modernity, fair governance, justice, all summed up into a strong, clearly communicated nation image, are necessary for any civilisation that wishes to truly thrive in the 21st century globalised world.

Any force that tries to deny them that opportunity, no matter where the force originates, cannot be called good. Let us hope that one day these razed civilisations will rise up once more and begin to establish themselves on the playing field of a new century.

This article was first published on PlacesBrands – Reputation Management for Places

About Samantha North :

Samantha North is a freelance journalist specialising in country branding, soft power and public diplomacy. She has a Master's degree in international business and management, and has worked on diverse projects in China, Belgium and Qatar over the last 7 years. Samantha is managing editor of the website PlacesBrands, (which can be found in the links to the left of this page). She is currently based in Istanbul.

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