History through the lens of information control & episode of Islamic liberalism 1860-1950

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Christopher de Bellaigue reviews (paywall; author self-archive pdf) Reading Darwin in Arabic, 1860–1950 by Marwa Elshakry in the 2015-06-04 New York Review of Books. The whole review (title: “Dreams of Islamic Liberalism”) is interesting, but note three on-topic paragraphs (emphasis added):

Dramatic changes of belief of the kind experienced by Kasravi were becoming commonplace in the Middle East, not only because Western thinkers were conceiving new ways to human fulfilment—positivism, secular spiritualism, social evolutionism—but because of the quickening effect of technology. Only a few decades earlier the clerics and copyists of Islam had conceded defeat in their centuries-old battle to contain the corrupting effects of the printing press, and it is hard to exaggerate the significance of the explosion in publishing that ensued. Along with expanding secular education, printing transformed an overwhelmingly illiterate society into a partly literate one. The slave trade was outlawed, although it continued illegally.

In the past, the sheikhs and the government had exercised a monopoly over knowledge. Now an expanding elite benefited from a stream of information on virtually anything that interested them. Between 1880 and 1908, Elshakry tells us, a total of more than six hundred newspapers and periodicals were founded in Egypt alone.

The most prominent among them was al-Muqtataf, whose readership greatly exceeded its circulation of three thousand. A group of enthusiasts in Baghdad, for example, banded together to buy a single subscription. Al-Muqtataf was the popular expression of a translation movement that had begun earlier in the century with military and medical manuals and highlights from the Enlightenment canon. (Montesquieu’s Considerations on the Romans and Fé-nelon’s Telemachus had been favorites.) Al-Muqtataf supplied its readers with articles, many of them lifted without attribution from journals like Popular Science, on subjects as diverse as glassmaking, microscopes, and maintaining a thick head of hair, and it introduced them to scientists like Thomas Huxley, Ernst Haeckel, and Louis Pasteur.

Histories of the world have been told through various lenses (e.g., art, science, military, religion, economics, medicine). I suspect there is a good telling through the lens of control of information, of which contemporary intellectual property would be one small part and the above one episode. Control of information has been used to maintain power throughout history, for example through secrecy, censorship, and making knowing or communicating certain information verboten for or restricted to certain classes, ethnicities, genders, occupations, etc. Has such a telling been attempted?

The review excerpt above made me wonder about copyright in the Ottoman Empire. Based mostly on references found in http://www.riyadh.om/2014/the-first-copyright-law-in-the-arab-world/ I added https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Copyright_law_of_Turkey#History … it appears that some form of copyright existed in theory from 1850, but was almost never enforced. The first formal copyright act in the Empire came in 1910, not long before its dissolution, but continued to serve as law in Turkey until 1951 and in some Arab jurisdictions even longer.

The liberalism described was overrun by events (WWI, Ottoman dissolution, British and French occupation, Islamic conservatism and Arab nationalism in part reacting to these; all discussed by the review and presumably in depth by the book) but it is interesting to note how it was abetted by lack of copyright or enforcement thereof; compare with today’s pirate libraries, book famines, and translation in commons-based peer production.

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