I came across the bottom image while searching for the top one.
The top image is an artist's impression of the 8th-9th century Caliph Harun al-Rashid receiving envoys from Charlemagne. Al-Rashid also maintained relations with the Tang Emperor at the other end of the Eurasian landmass, making Baghdad literally the centre of the civilised world.* I think the picture captures the relative positions of the West and Islam at the time - the primitiveness of dark age Europe compared with the refinement, wealth and power of the Muslim world.
The bottom image is of US marines conducting an airlift in Iraq. I think it expresses the contemporary relationship between the West and Islam, i.e. the latter's complete eclipse by the former: technologically, economically, militarily. I'm pretty sure these two juxtaposed images represent the context in which the occupation of Iraq and the broader 'War on Terror' is seen by Muslims round the world, a conclusion reinforced by discussions with Muslim friends. We are faced with a clash of civilisations, but one far more subtle than banalities about Islamo-fascists hating our way of life would suggest.
It's also a pictorial metaphor for one of the great questions of history, which I'll be exploring at length on this blog:
Why is it that among the world's civilisations, that which long seemed the least promising - what we call 'the West' - came eventually to build modernity and completely dominate the globe? (if you cringe at such cavalier use of the term 'modernity', rest assured I'll critique it in upcoming posts).
I say least promising because I'm treating 'the West' as a civilisation distinct from that of classical Greece and Rome, with its roots in the benighted Europe represented by the Frankish envoys in the picture. I'll be framing the discusison in terms of the debate between Eurocentrists, those who emphasise the uniqueness of 'western' civilisation, and anti-Eurocentrists, those who argue that the rise of the West was contingent - on timing, on geography, on the contributions of other cultures. My fascination with this question derives partly from my Chinese heritage (that of history's great second runner), partly from an academic interest that I sometimes have to remind myself isn't shared by everyone. But it does concern all of us, because the signs show that the age of western preeminence is passing. The defining phenomenon of the 21st century will not be terrorism but rather the rennaisance of non-western societies, which one can't comprehend without an understanding of how they fell so far behind in the first place.
History matters, people. And that's not self-justification for my Arts major. ;)
*Champions of New World civilisations will no doubt think that I'm a 'Eurasia-centrist'. Bear with me, I'll attend to the Americas in upcoming posts.