Dumb America and Smart Islam

There is a common western–or perhaps typically western–misperception that the Islamic world is lost in a theological fantasy that does not permit it to exit the 12th century into the 21st.

When I wrote the introduction to Ibn Warraq’s Why I am Not a Muslim (which oddly, for its brief compass, received almost as much attention as the book itself) I tried to explain to non-historians why Islamic history is, so to speak,  backwards: a golden age only a few centuries after the Prophet’s death in 632 that corresponded to the Christian “dark ages,” followed by a dark age of religious protectionism and dynastic quarrelling that corresponded to the European renaissance.  It’s an irony, of course, that religions thought to have so much in common did not run parallel tracks in terms of doctrinal development and intellectual achievement; but it is a fact that after the Renaissance  religious authority in the West was in for a long, bumpy and finally catastrophic ride, while Islam (like the Judaism of the 6th century BCE, or Christianity on the brink of the Council of Nicaea) built a hedge around its laws, customs, and holy book.  For lots of reasons, it has never been fully successful in negotiating or rationalising its isolation.

At the far end of the European renaissance, Islam encountered a West different from the West it had outlasted in the Crusades–largely as a well-equipped miltary and political overlord: colonialism was the natural result of European feelings of global entitlement and paternalism towards “other races.” The feeling of imperial superiority–especially but not exclusively British–was combined with a certain fascination with the sights, smells, and exotic beauty of the subordinated lands and people–the perspective Edward Said tried to describe in his sometimes (but not always) compelling book, Orientalism.

To this day, Islamic historiography is taught as a teleology of founding, fighting, expansion, dynastic competition, protection and usurpation.  These themes are not alien to Judaism and Christianity–or to Hindusim and Buddhism for that matter–but Islam is unique among the religions of the world–excepting only a few born-again science-despisers in the Bible Belt–in feeling its faith is at intense and constant risk from secularism, irreligion, and foreign values.  This feeling has always characterized “separatist” groups ranging from the Puritans of old and New England to the Mennonites in Europe and America.  But Islam is unique in being a culture, and a very populous and successful culture  rather than a band of persecuted renegades from a  mother religion. Its success is in its numbers: 20.12% of the world’s population is Muslim.

There is no need to explore the way in which Islamic insecurity plays itself out.  Its epochal moment was 9-11, and like the Holocaust or the mushroom cloud over Hiroshima, it is tempting to think there will never be another quite like it.  To the extent the west has iconized it as “proof” that something is rotten in Mecca (and the extent of that belief has only widened since 2001, and not only in America), the West is now directly guilty of not having learned more about Islam and not having done enough, beyond fighting two utterly useless, costly wars and killing thousands of men and women, some soldiers, to make it stop hurting.  The West has not tried hard enough to study causes rather than effects.  Instead it has promoted the same sort of paternalistic, culturally indifferent solutions that created the problem of Angry Islam– the disinherited Ishmael looking on as Isaac takes all the goodies.

It’s one of the great underanalyzed moments of the brief bonding that occurred between normally feuding allies Britain, France and America that the overlords were not stricken by the grief that arises from personal responsibility for their sequential roles in the humiliation of Islam, but united by a desire for “justice” and payback: Dan Lohrman recalled on the tenth anniversary of the event,

 [We] watched President Bush’s historic speech [before Congress] …Prime Minister, Tony Blair, sat in the crowd during the speech that was watched around the world. And yet, the events didn’t transform our foreign friends in the same way that we were impacted. Our country became more introspective, self-absorbed, determined for justice. Our new battle-cry became: the terrorists will not win.

Then, of course, the talk turned from immediate retribution–a good old fashioned biblical virtue– to security; the term “homeland” was invented to describe a government department, because the term “nation” seemed too abstract, perhaps even philosophical. (You defend your home, not your neighborhood). In a country that had no agenda, the agenda quickly became protecting the country.  If a few church groups and interfaith do-gooders preached the essence of Christianity being the practice of forgiveness, it was easy to read the code: “We are not like these Monsters and they are monsters because they are not Us.” It was scarcely helpful to say, Not all Muslims are killers.

A decade later, it is very difficult for America, or its allies,  to sustain the view that Islam, compared to them,  is the violent, backward cousin of progressive, secular, liberal modern culture.

For one thing, the country most vocal ( if not always public) in that claim is more regressive, educationally backward,  and illiberal than any country in Europe and many nations in the Islamic world.  The Hollywood successes of American science notwithstanding (because these achievements are scarely recognized, or understood, by the populace in general, and operate as an underfunded, costly and suspect subculture), the gross ignorance of Americans and their elected representatives is the nation’s greatest political and cultural liablity. As Fareed Zakaria argues in The Post-American world, it is no longer necessary to talk about the decline of America; that is obvious. It is time to acknowledge the rise of everyone else.  The burning question is not why, but when a country that was once imaginative lost interest in just about everything but food designed to make it fatter and television programmed to keep the audience at roughly the same educational level as their pets.

Its political candidates know next to nothing about physics and astronomy–areas that Muslim scientists like al-Khwarizmi pioneered in the 9th century. They appear to know very little about the circumstances under which the American republic was formed, the dumbest of them claiming that America is a Christian nation founded by Christian men with Christian ambitions for the new country. They collectivize “the American people” in a way that is unparalleled outside 1930’s Germany’s use of the phrase Das Deutsche Volk or appeals by pan-Islamicists to the Ummah in the formative days of Islam.

As to violence, taking Pakistan as a test case, the number of major suicide attacks in 2010 stood at 662, inflicting a total of 6,088 fatalities.  How does America size up? There were 52,447 deliberate and 23,237 accidental non-fatal gunshot injuries in the United States in 2000. The majority of gun-related deaths in the United States were suicides, with 17,352 (55.6%) of the total 31,224 firearm-related deaths in 2007 due to suicide, while 12,632 (40.5%) were homicide deaths. In 2009, according to the UNODC, 60% of all homicides in the United States were perpetrated using a firearm.  In 2007, 872 Americans were killed in Iraq, a figure that does not include Iraqi military and civilian casualties (on both sides), and those who suffered irreparable injuries from which they died later.  Moreover, deaths from guns in the United States is persistent; 8,775 gun deaths were reported in 2010 (a decline from previous years) but there were nearly 13,000 murders from all causes, suicides not included.  It seems unnecessary to say that Christian America is an unlikely lecturer on the topic of other people’s violence.

I’ve often argued that one way to “sensitize” people to the problems of social and global ignorance is to teach them something about other people.  A country that likes to throw around words like “multiculturalism” and “pluralism” and “diversity” as a badge of broad-mindedness has never been more ignorant of the implications of what it means to be an open society or a global citizen–this despite the border-busting properties of the internet.

Open to what, to where and to whom? In the 2010 National Report Card in Geography  (a test given to 4th, 8th and 12 graders at embarrassingly infrequent intervals), over 70% of students could not score at basic proficiency level.  70% of Americans do not hold passports: There were 61.5 million trips outside the United States in 2009, down 3% from 2008, according to the Office of Travel and Tourism Industries. About 50% of those trips were to either Mexico or Canada, destinations that didn’t require a passport until 2007.

If Americans cannot find Pakistan on a map, it is unlikely that they will care very much about what people there have for dinner, what kind of music they listen to, or what they believe. People who don’t know much about other people will always find it easy to rationalize their ignorance as wisdom and their lack of information as justifiable indifference to what just doesn’t matter.

I cynically disbelieve that the information Americans lack can be provided at the level of “interfaith”dialogue and interdisciplinary seminars at a community level. Liberal Christians and Jews don’t need the lessons and the 51% of deeply muscular evangelicals don’t want them.  What is left are the ‘Nones”–neither atheists nor believers, ensconced in their oversized sofas between a bag of Cheetos and five look-alike remotes for bringing in 280 HD menu items. For them, the motto is the less you know the happier you will be.

I am even more pessimistic that this information can be offered  by undertrained graduates of the farcical entities we call “colleges” of education. The proof of their impermanence is that in the US almost 72% of students who major in education teach for less than four years. They also tend to be the lowest scoring students on standardized tests at entry level and the weakest in subject-area tests at exit.

This is not true in the Arab world. It is not true in the UK and most of Europe. It is not true in China.  We do not see education as a remedy for our geographical ignorance, our limping economy, our national indifference to other people, other ideas and other faiths for good reason.  Americans see wealth and strength as the primary indices of status, and these things are expressed not in a classroom or in a hospital but in military adventures and political swagger. America’s indifference to learning now borders on contempt for any success that cannot be measured in warheads or capital.  The nation is unhappy that it is poor (in deficit) and jobless, but apparently happy to spend  711 billion dollars (2010) on defense.  -America’s closest competitor, China, weighs in at 143 Billion, the UK at 62 billion, Russia at 72 billion.

Guns and money, power and wealth,  will eventually drive education out of Dodge, but before that it will be driven out of New York and Chicago and  LA. Perhaps by that time we will be too fat to care–like the orbiting population of earth in the Pixar film Wall-E. Or perhaps we will be too  dumb to notice.

13 thoughts on “Dumb America and Smart Islam

  1. I agree that American’s need to take more time to educate themselves about something other than football and X-box. It is a problem at every level. At the popular level, we’ve seen the History Channel and the Learning Channel switch from education to freak shows. At the primary level, all of my history and geography teachers were first and foremost athletic coaches who were asked to babysit bored teens for an hour a day. And the collage kids? I think the OWS movement spoke volumes about the quality of collage education as angry students had nothing better to offer than nostalgic imitation of sixties radicals. It was a giant out-door counter cultural “MAD MEN” party.

    On the other hand, I can’t think of a majority Islamic country more progressive, educated, and liberal than the U.S. Was that just hyperbole, or do you have an example? If you are relying on the murder rate to justify this position, I personally would rather have U.S. murder rates and U.S. levels of civil rights than Saudi levels of murder and Saudi levels of civil rights. It reminds of the people who used to say of the fascist, “they made the trains run on time”. Well that fine and good, but I would just as soon wait 30 minutes for a train whose destination isn’t a death camp.

    • Education is superb in Dubai, all of the Emirates, parts of Indonesia, even in Syria before the ugliness erupted. There is violence associated with religious feuding but I think if you look at the facts the homicide rate and crime rate is much lower than the US. Do I want to live in Muslim theocratic police state? No. I want the US to be smarter–about the world, and about violence, including guns.

  2. Apart from the obvious – that this essay above is clear and simple history which should be common knowledge but isn’t because too many people are so prejudiced, pre-occupied with Fox News, ill educated and under informed… I’m wondering if the ‘collage’ kids and ‘collage’ education references by Mike are intentional or a Freudian slip. You know, like messy stick-up, sticky glue, patchy images;)

  3. Steph, definitely Freudian, I’m sure they are a number of good metaphors in there.

    Everybody is upset about the state of education in this country but not enough to get anything done. You’ve been through a number of nations’ educational systems, how do they compare and what can we learn?

    RJH, “Do I want to live in Muslim thecratic police state? No. I want the US to be smarter–about the world, and about violence, including guns”

    I completely agree.

  4. Mike,

    Interesting question and something I think about every day. There are holes in every education system and I have plenty of ideas but not solutions. I cannot though fairly compare my experiences with the American one, because I have not of course received any training from American education. America, regrettably, is one of many countries whose education system is controlled too often by dogmatists – ie creationists, fundamentalists and so on.

    I do believe, having been trained to teach early childhood age, when I first left school, that a child’s early experience is fundamental to their future development and learning ability and desire. I would have continued to teach but decided I had too much more to learn myself I felt, and too much of the world and people to discover first. As a child I had the benefit of older siblings, all of whom became teachers (except one who is a muziko-in-a-rock-band, and in later life an Aussie lawyer too concerned with Aboriginal natural law and restorative justice). My sister a little older than me used to come home from school and imitate the teachers with me as guinea pig student. She taught me to read and write and multiply before I started school, and a little French too. I also benefited from books rather than TV – we never had one and I still don’t. I never developed the need. Kiwi culture is much more outdoors.

    Antipodean state education has the benefit of being secular as the land was colonised by members of English Free Thought Societies and founded on those principles. Nevertheless the first settlers still stole the land and abused the original people, and in Aotearoa NZ, they did this despite signing the Waitangi Peace treaty, and declaring, “He iwi tahi tātou” = “we are now one people”. This is the reason in Aotearoa, that the Waitangi tribunal was set up a few decades ago to pay back land and compensation to Maori people. Waiting on the whole of Australia to treat Aboriginal people as equals. There has never been any opposition to the evidence of science by silly fundamentalists, as any fundamentalism, if it exists at all, is buried, no doubt ashamed of itself, deep underground. From primary school I remember evolutionary murals lining the classroom walls, and field trips, sometimes weekly, exploring natural life, visiting estuaries, farms, horticulturalists and so on, and even survival skills in the bush. Schools approach science in very practical ways. Health, diet and exercise are also part of the curriculum and a necessity for healthy, growing, learning minds.

    Teacher training, parent education (READ to your children!!), and class sizes matter, so that individuality can be recognised and special needs for both advanced and pre-advanced kids acknowledged and attended to. It’s all about equal opportunities in an egalitarian society and no kiddy left out – or left behind.

    At university age, the cost of fees should be heavily subsided by governments so that more are given the opportunity to continue learning. I also believe however, in stronger examination controls limiting the entry to those who are willing and have the desire to learn rather than allow those who believe they know everything already and just want ‘tickets’ to give them ‘credibility’… Critical thinking is part of a developing primary and secondary education curriculum.

    I appreciate the Antipodean approach to first university degrees, having done two very broad degrees before specialising later after having lived life a little more. The UK university system on the other hand, seems to encourage very young students to specialise early and miss out on research and experience in a broad range of sciences and humanities, culture and arts first. I was naively surprised coming to Nottingham to land in a very ‘Christian’ theology department. Since the retirement of Casey the department I think has declined. It has also replaced an atheist Jewish anthropologist, Seth Kunin, and a scholar of Islam and other religions, Hugh Goddard, with two more young conservative theologians…

    Kent and Sheffield universities however, are among a number of British universities, moving ahead and expanding the humanities so ‘theologians’ explore more than just ‘theology’. The British approach is still predominantly one of a specialising early nature though, which has advantages, but disadvantages too. I do not regret my late specialisation at all. My interests are broader and my application of other disciplines perhaps freer sometimes and more pronounced. When I went to university there were so many wonderful courses, I enrolled in just about every single department… regrettably I had to drop a few papers! I knew I had greedily over indulged – I had just been unable to decide. And greedy.

    • (READ to your children!!)

      yes! I have a dear friend who taught at a elementary school that serviced a poor neighborhood and I heard a lot of horror stories about kids who lacked positive activities at home, kids who had never used scissors before and such. Parents cannot fool them selves into thinking the system will educate their children and give themn a better life if they don’t see you read, if they see you disparage educated people as egg-heads and know it alls. Here in the states, public school is decentralized so different regions have different problems, but universally are public schools are bad.

      At the college level, along with constant tuition increases which means I will be at least 50K in debt to land a job that pays at most 40K, not enough American kids are majoring in sciences and not enough are paying atttention in the humanities. I one point I contemplated the idea that more people should be taught a trade and not spend their limited funds on the humanities, but we are not a society where drones make widgets while philosophers make our laws. Uncultured people vote for shitty politicians; it is a persons civic duty to be as well rounded in their education as is feasible.

  5. Superb essay! Very well balanced despite it’s devastating critique of the current American situation. I’ve only had a few muslim friends(well, one was an atheist from Iran) but they always seemed more than willing to engage in conversation and I never found any of them to be outwardly offended by views different from their own. Live and let live seemed to be their motto.

    America, however, cannot see the above mentioned because it causes them to think and thinking just hurts too much. News briefs these days at are about the 7th grade level(and that’s being generous) but I’m not an educator so I’m not sure.

    What thing I am very certain of is what is mentioned in the essay: our isolationism and ignorance of the world outside our little tribal enclaves.The self absorption is such that I’m actually willing to re-consider the possibility of solipsism.

    I have a solution! Education of course(okay, don’t fall over your chairs in tears of laughter). The hard part, of course, is getting through the 10 millisecond American attention span.

  6. I want to be reading this in the Guardian. The English too have been more than a little disingenuous about taking some responsibility for where we are vis a vis muslims in the West.

    And we might continue any rapprochement with a little more light on the agnostic pioneering of Confucianism, toward a lasting consensus among the species as to who the hell we are and might be going. Respect first, and understanding will follow.

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