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I’m in the midst of teaching my students a crash course in how Western Civilization reached modernity in a roughly 400 year explosion of cultural evolution, as a preface to exploring American history. Part and parcel of that is getting them to understand the encompassing power of a worldview and how people and societies react when the dominant worldview is challenged by an alternative model.

Along with many historical examples I borrow liberally from, among others, Alvin and Heidi Toffler and Thomas Kuhn as well as some recent elements of popular culture – I like the scene in The Matrix where the Neo/Anderson character played by Keanu Reeves is led by Morpheus to discover that all his previous conceptions of the world are false in the most radical way possible. It illustrates the point rather well for Generation Y which usually keys into visual and cultural references more readily than literary ones.

The West survived and prospered from its multi-century crisis in shifting paradigms precisely because in an earlier stage, it adopted and assimilated an epistemological approach that allowed it to resolve definitively important social questions around concepts of truth, evidence and proof which were more or less understood and held universally. So it has remained at least until the arrival of ultimately foolish arguments from irrationalist philosophers, quietly trying to bury their Nazi affinities under a guise of pop trendy sixties radicalism.

The Muslim world unfortunately has not internalized such a mechanism. Instead it relies on a consensus without authority approach where problems of great import are effectively insoluble, except by force utilized by a local despot. In the event of a controversy – say over the morality of killing women and schoolchildren – at best Muslim religious authorities may offer an opinion, or even a Fatwa, that many Muslims may accept. The flaw in the system is that the Muslims who are perpetrating these outrages are free to disagree or follow a clerical opinion from some radical sheikh that is more to their liking, which they do.

It is the lack of any accepted system of definitively resolving any questions coupled with the socially accepted and intimidating recourse to violent means that undergirds both our problem of Islamist terror and the centuries of decline and stagnation suffered by the Islamic world. As a civilization they have painted themselves into a corner and they are unable to emerge from this blind alley without adopting at least some of the tenets of our modern worldview – the very worldview whose challenge to the Islamist mentality sparks such intense rage and fear.

Solutions are not obvious. Secular education and a culture of literacy, which is not widespread in the Arab-Islamic world, would help though this would be a solution with a generational time frame. Connectivity between the Muslim world and the Core is the answer but the way is blocked by creaky, authoritarian regimes that fear their own people or Islamist sharia states whose raison d’etre is to keep Muslims poor, ignorant and under control. I can see no piecemeal approach except unrelenting, overwhelming, pressure on the entire, rotting structure of states in the Mideast to comply with civilized norms, handing out carrots and incentives to be sure but only those that will speed the process of reform.

Sometimes there are no easy answers.

6 Responses to “”

  1. Dave Schuler Says:

    The problem in the Arab world is even more serious than you suggest. Go to my site; search for “diglossia” or “diglossic” and you’ll start to get the idea.

    Arabic has essentially the same problem as Chinese. Resolving that problem will either destroy any pretense of Arab unity or force a basic change in the Arab people’s behavior and I mean down to the level of the interaction of mother and child.

    For China to come as far as they have required a Great Leap Forward and a Cultural Revolution. Millions died. And the process there has only begun.

  2. Anonymous Says:

    When worldview collide….

    Language is not only shaped by our thoughts it often tends to shape our thinking a priori through habitual expression and conceptualization ( a good argument for learning or teaching your kids a foreign language ).

    Dave, your diglossia remarks were so intriguing that I’m going to follow them up after I contact a friend who is a linguist from the U. of Chicago and get some additional perspective on the subject

  3. Dave Schuler Says:

    Please pass along your findings. I’m very interested in this subject particularly as a component in a (much) longer essay I’m writing. One of the things that has slowed me down is that everything about the Arab Muslim world appears to be controversial. What’s the literacy rate? You can get answers that differ by an order of magnitude.

    Here’s an interesting factoid: the Koran is frequently memorized rather than being read.

  4. mark Says:

    When you think about it, aside from being a convenience for a culture where literacy is often the province of an elite minority, the emphasis on rote memorization by madrassas serves some important purposes.

    First, memorization is a cognitive activity accessible throughout almost the entire range of the bell curve. Combined with a very simple set of basic requirements to convert to Islam it makes the Muslim faith a very infectious, reproduceable ” meme”.

    Secondly, oral traditions despite the scorn in which modern historians tend to hold them, tend to be fairly reliable and accurate transmitter of tradition. The human memory is prodigious though Westerners seldom develop our inherent capacity it is useful to recall that we once memorized things like The Song of Roland and the Illiad.

    Thirdly, as a primary pedagogical activity, rote memorization encourages mental activity to stay at the bottom of Bloom’s Taxonomy will helping to inculcate a set of moral ” internal restraints ” on all I.Q. quartiles of the population. This reduces challenge to authority from both the most reactive and concrete and the most intellectual subgroups in the population. Once safely indoctrinated the more gifted students can be encouraged to devote themselves to more complex Quranic study; even here however it seldom rises above the level of analysis of the Hadith. After all, who is man to evaluste or synthesize the word of Allah.

    Unsurprisingly, terrorists who rise high in al Qaida often come from science field backgrounds – engineering, medicine etc. – where these bright men were encouraged or required to engage in higher-order critical thinking, in some cases for the first time. It opened up a world for them but their religious training circumscribes the use of critical thinking.

    Islam itself is not a morally permissible vista for their intellectual powers. The problems that beset the Muslim world *must* have an alterenate explanation than the limitations inherent in the Islamic culture and being intellectuals they are quite willing to rationalize any behavior that protects that form of denial and channels their frustration toward the acceptable scapegoats.

    By the way Dave, what is your blog ? I want to add you to the Blogroll.

  5. Dave Schuler Says:

    Thanks, mark. My blog is The Glittering Eye.

    My point about memorization of the Koran was that it’s prima facie evidence that literacy in the Muslim world in general, Arab Muslim world in particular may be overestimated.

    And literacy restructures thought. There’s a substantial body of scholarship that supports this. To give a simple example when literate people want to know something they look it up. When people from an oral or vestigial oral culture want to know something they seek out a person—an authority. It changes how you look at things.

    I’m giving away some of my own essay prematurely. 😉

  6. mark Says:

    “literacy restructures thought”

    Agreed. Even with my admittedly limited knowledge of cognitive neuroscience I would argue that it rewires the brain as well in terms of neuronal-glial connectivity and systemic efficiency.

    Adding Glittering Eye to the Blogroll…will have an intro post up for you relatively soon.

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