Three of the last four popes have been university professors, including the current one who was professor of philosophical and theological studies at the University of San Miguel in Argentina before rising in the hierarchy. Some popes, like Benedict XVI, Pius XII, Paul VI and John Paul II are known primarily as intellectuals with dazzling linguistic skills. Charisma—as Benedict and Paul VI proved–is not mandatory. Occasionally, one is elected—like Pope John XXIII—who rises in the ranks primarily as a “pastor” or administrator. But the history of the modern papacy is the history of smart guys who get to wear white elected to office by other smart guys who wear red.
Even if you disagree with their theology (and who doesn’t?) it is hard to fault their training and intelligence. While the ‘new atheism’ has repeatedly proved its historical dumbness in relation to the preservation of culture and book learning, it would be an understatement to say that the Catholic Church has done its share of the heavy lifting.
The term ‘rabbi’ has been a mark of distinction since antiquity. Loosely, it means “master” or “teacher” and connotes competence in logic, linguistics, history, and interpretation. (One of the reasons Jesus seems to have caused offense in a synagogue when he presumed to interpret a verse of scripture is that he lacked formal education). Look at the course of study in most Jewish seminaries today and you will see that nothing has been lost of this love of learning. And as with most Christian theological schools, you have to have at least an undergraduate degree (or more) to be admitted to the course in the first place. There is no official hierarchy in Judaism, so there is no equivalent to the pope, but ‘chief rabbis’ tend to be respected teachers and scholars, whether they are occupying positions in Rome, London, Jerusalem, or Montreal (astoundingly, New York, with half the world’s Jews, doesn’t have one).
If anyone doubts Jewish commitment to education, just count the Nobel prizes won by Jews. Astonishing, if you compare the 15 million Jews worldwide to the 2.08 billion Muslims in the world. Just for information, in its long history, 10 Muslims have won the prize, six for peace. Jews have won 20% of the total number of prizes ever awarded, although Jews comprise less than 0.2% of the world’s population. Overall, Jews have won a total of 41% of all the Nobel Prizes in economics, 28% of medicine, 26% of Physics, 19% of Chemistry, 13% of Literature and 9% of all peace awards. Maybe that is what God meant by chosen people.
Which brings me to the unpleasant thesis sentence of this little screed. Islam is illiterate. Its teachers are illiterate. Its educational system, to the extent it calls itself Islamic, is impoverished. Not particularly in its faithful, who have constructed some good (if not prestigious or world-ranked) universities and produced some excellent scholars and a vast array of professionals in the last century—mainly by availing themselves of western education and training.
But at its core–in its clergy. It is clear to almost anyone who looks at the imams and mullahs of Islam that the only comparison between Islam and the West relative to theology would have to be made between the worst graduates of fundamentalist Bible colleges in America and the best graduates of Islamic seminaries–anywhere.
What is truly remarkable, if we strip bare the reality behind these facts, is that undeniably intelligent people around the globe tolerate a situation where they can respect and obey the religious dicta of men (all men) whose religious training is roughly equivalent to (but probably not as broad as) someone with a two year degree from a junior college in Mississippi. It is impossible to think of an apt analogy without referring to slavery.
For people like me–who know the past and present of Islam pretty well–the only reasonable question is, Where is your revolution, your Reformation? Your wars are everywhere, Death is everywhere. But where is change?
True, of course, there are exceptions; but the education of Islamic clerics is a one-book-and-its-friends curriculum. It is a one-language course of study that is unfriendly to philosophy, secularism, the West, the liberal arts– especially serious historical study–most science, and worst of all the two hundred year period–sometimes called the “Islamic Enlightenment”–when Islam actually forged ahead of the West (albeit with the help of a lot of Arab-Jewish teachers like Maimonides) in learning. The West and the Crusades didn’t torch and destroy this culture—they appropriated it, expanded and developed it. Modern Islamic teachers barely refer to it. Many have not heard of it.
Everything these clerics oppose—from freedom of conscience to freedom of marriage to educational equality for women–is rooted in a civilization that a now dead Islamic civilization tried to bury in the eleventh century. Wars, caliphs, ambition, and eventually desuetude combined to defeat it.
This stunning decline in clerical literacy has reached a crisis point in some countries like Kyrgyzstan where the number of trained mosque minders is steadily decreasing, and a few serious scholars now worry that misinterpretations of Islam could lead to an increase in the number of religious radicals. Yet when pressed to explain what this crisis might mean in real terms, tropes replace reasons.
The religious councils crack their knuckles over “false” or “mistaken” interpretations of Islam that drive Islamic radicalism, but the finger is always pointed–the trouble always comes–from the mosque next door, the imam down the road.
“How can we convey the true meaning of Islam?” asks Kadyr Malikov, head of the independent research centre, Religion, Law and Politics, “when some distortions of the Qur’an are intentional… When they cannot recruit people, they mislead them,” he says of extremist groups. And Manas Kurmanbayev, a member of a Muslim initiative group adds that uneducated imams frequently fall under the influence of radical groups. They become, in effect, chaplains to extremist armies.
But what is happening in Kyrgykstan is happening and has been happening throughout the Muslim world and to a degree, in export form, in the West where it often takes root in indigenous cells of anti-Americanism to produce a bitter sub-culture.
The illitericisation of Islam among the imams in favour of simple (Persian?) black and white dualisms (good and evil, Muslim/infidel) is an appealing worldview to young, restless, uneducated men who need to be right about and feel validated by something It corresponds to more immediate and material dualisms, like rich and poor. Afghanistan, Pakistan, and much of North Africa—including, increasingly, countries like Sudan, Nigeria and Somalia–depend on the ignorance of the faithful to provide the religious bond among tribes, and the agency of the illiterate, authoritative imam to fuel their prejudices.
There is no need for an al Qaeda to ensure the dominance of this model of Islam. It thrives on intellectual laziness, poverty, lack of opportunity, and a sense of being cut off from a world it suspects of being dark and satanic.
The momentary horror of 9-11 was not that people were killed, but that for one day these two non-conversant worlds were brought together in a way that is unlikely to happen ever again. How many illiterate imams danced that day? –Passenger airliners turned into the stones that pilgrims would throw during the amī aj-jamarāt (رمي الجمرات) of the Hajj, an emotional climax so frenzied that until recently hundreds died each year in the effort to fling a rock at a stone believed to be a petrified demon. It seemed so modern, but its horror was the visitation of medieval ideals on modernity, the past punishing the present.
I was looking back over my files a few days ago and came across a 2010 piece by Sumbul Ali-Karamali called “Muslim Cleric Loses His Head.” Superficially she was defending the right of outspoken Dutch politician Geert Wilders to say that the Quran is “hate speech” and to deplore a Muslim cleric for demanding his beheading: “How could any thinking individual not wholeheartedly condemn such a vile statement? The vast majority of us Muslims around the world see news headings like this one and groan,” she writes.
But like a lot of super-friendly American Muslim women and “moms” (law degree from UC Davis, English from Stanford) she seems to be only interested, like the title of her blog, in “the Muslim next door.”
Karamali also holds a certificate in “Islamic law” from the School of Oriental and African Studies in London—hardly a venue where she is likely to encounter the male-only candidates for imam-ships that populate the seminaries of the real Islamic world, outside California and the UK. That is why she permits herself analogies like these:
“Last week, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, a former Chief Rabbi of Israel [sic] and spiritual head of the Shas Party, a member of the governing coalition, repeated his 2001 call for the annihilation of Arabs, saying, ‘It is forbidden to be merciful to them.’ Pastor Steve Anderson of a church in Arizona says he prays for the death of Obama and calls for death to homosexuals. The problem with the Muslim clerics is that they get so much press. How can non-Muslims be faulted for thinking that Islam is a violent religion when vicious and Un-Islamic statements like this cleric’s are the ones that make the news?”
To parse what is pretty self-evidently a sob, how dare an imam sound like a Jewish and Christian fundamentalist and a loud mouthed Dutch politician who wants to see ‘Arabs’ killed and the Quran banned as hate speech?
But that, to be blunt, is the biggest red herring ever to swim in a shallow shoal. The Netherlands is not on record as being illiberal. Dutch Conservative politicians do not blow themselves up to kill Social Democrats they disagree with.
Ovaida Yosef, the Sephardic chief rabbi of Jerusalem, convinced precisely no Jews to kill even a single Arab while Muslims in the region were killing each other like carnival ducks; and Pastor Steve Anderson, like Pastor Terry Jones and other evangelical want-wits persuaded precisely no one to do anything to anyone in the name of their eccentric views of Christianity. Are we really meant to see these cases as apposite?
The problem with Islam is not that ‘Un-Islamic’ statements by clerics ‘get too much news’, but that Islam can do nothing to control the incessant spew of utter hatred that comes from the lips of religious ‘experts’, a situation which is made more hopeless by the ability of intellectually deficient and sexually frustrated men to hide behind the assured authority of the book they claim to represent. That is the problem with Islam.
Part of the mythology of the post 9-11 world is the belief that scores of Muslims have been killed by vengeful Christians and Jews who have embarked on a new crusade against their religion. The fact is, scores of Muslims have been killed by other Muslims for no reason at all. Various underestimates, in fact, suggest that Al Qaeda has succeeded in killing 8-times more Muslims than non-Muslims, and this does not take into account the untargeted victims of Islamic violence in Pakistan and other hot zones of the Islamic world where the primary victims of Islamic violence are Muslims.
The West, especially America, has behaved with the exemplary tolerance that has characterized its best moments in history.
But that is a dull story; the interesting one is the one that isn’t true. Muslims die by thousands because the West hates them and tries to suppress the Prophet’s truth.
Frankly I have ceased to care what devout Muslims mean by Un-Islamic. The phrase no longer means anything at all. It is absurd beyond absurdity. In many Islamic countries, the imams and mullahs use it when they talk about the education of women; liberal Muslims use it when they disagree with extremists, American and European Muslims when they are trying to establish their liberal ‘democratic’ credentials over and against the patterns of the Islamic world. “Un-Islamic” means what the last charismatic preacher says it means, what the imam with a sixth grade education tells you it means, what a professor at SOAS tells you it means when he tries to discredit the imam with a sixth grade education. Nothing.
Most people seem certain that they know what and where the core of Islam, the true religion is, but no one can point to it. Traditionally, in such disputes (as in Christian fundamentalism or Jewish), the pointing will move further to the right, further toward an indistinct depositum fidei that is regarded as close to the glory days of a religion. This pristinism is inherent in all the book religions, but especially in the monolatry of Islam, which regards all other book religions as perversions of its straight path.
This same attitude permits some adherents to describe all others as heretics with little or no conception of what “heresy” might mean. Except the trend is rightward, as one has come to expect of monolatry. What is old is good; what is old is right. And the old is identified not with interpretation but with the social and religious conditions of the Prophet’s own lifetime–conditions which are sometime still visible in the lifestyles of people in North Africa and the Middle East.
Unfortunately, in the case of Islam–a backward patchwork of prior regional religions from its inception–it takes us back to desert tribes, all-male covens, a God the Jews and Christians had already forsaken as a brute, and an attitude toward women that can only be described as pre-classical.
Rather like Euthyphro being asked to define piety, the average Muslim simply refers happily to the will of God and walks away from any serious discussion of a faith he assumes to be abundantly clear. Nowhere else on earth do the civil phrases and greetings– al-Humdulillah (God be praised) and Insh’allah (God willing)–betray so sadly the mindset of a culture that refuses to think for itself but instead entrusts itself to the religious pronouncements of bearded nabobs who pretend to know with the certainty of a medieval Franciscan the will of God.
Islam needs to stop deceiving itself that rabid rabbis and crazy Christians can be put forward as the moral equivalent (let alone some sort of weird justification) for the constant stream of bloodshed that covers the earth in the Islamic world, Muslim to Muslim. To be direct, the Jewish and Christian outliers are statistically insignificant. But the swelling numbers of illiterate and extreme Muslim clergy is typical. A simple fact check tells the whole story: According to the NCTC, between 82% and 97% of deaths owing to religious violence in 2011–the last year for which secure statistics were available-were Muslims killing Muslims.
It is a comment on the religion of the West that provocateurs like Steven Anderson, Fred Phelps, and Terry Jones are regarded as perversions not of a “true Christianity” but even by secular standards of simple human decency. What they have in common is stupidity and hate—an educational background that left them untouched by the civilizing and critical thought processes that characterize the education of rabbis and priests and most mainstream clergy, whether Unitarian or Baptist.
Surely the comparisons the Islamic world wishes for its clerics is not between a circus sideshow and their religious mainstream; but it is almost undeniable that outside Europe and North America, the Islamic clerisy is inhabited by clowns.
It is time for the apologists of Islam to stop playing the comparison game and acknowledge the root cause of the problem. It is not the humiliation of Islam by the West that is the root of this problem but the depressing condition of Islamic education, at both seminary and university level, that spells tragedy. The root cause of future ‘terrorism’ will be the happy conjunction of young men who don’t think and religious experts who prefer them not to, because, of course, they never learned themselves.
The educational standard of the Islamic world in general is a scandal, a joke, a laboratory culture for unhappy young men and compliant young women who would prefer to blame the rest of the world for problems they cannot solve because the self-referential myopia of their religion is not designed to solve them. The illiteracy problem in Islam is first Islam itself, not the West, not infidelity, modernity or secularism, and second those who defend its cure as Unislamic. It is not a good place. It is Scylla and Charybdis.