Flags for Books

February 14, 2006 | by | Topic: The Global ChallengePrint Print

Flags R’ Us must be doing a brisk business these days, what with the pandemic of national banner burning sweeping across the Muslim world from Jeddah to Jakarta.Here’s a thought: maybe Scandinavians could borrow a page from McDonalds’ and blurt something like “Fifty thousand burned so far!” For all that, the western world hasn’t witnessed such a ruckus since a coven of Ivy League crazies got the vapors over the mere suggestion that there might indeed be differences between men and women, besides the plumbing, that is. But all the aggrieved threatened to do in that case was to faint and vomit—I forget in what order.Still, one is entitled to ask, Holy Cow!—sorry, wrong religion—Moping Mullahs! what’s going on here?

Answers to this question have gushed from the mouths of foreign ministers, elected officials, Muslim apologists, professors, and pundits like a backup of effluents exploding from broken drainpipes.Which is to suggest that most of the explanations have been pretty nauseating, since they tend to emphasize the importance of tolerance and sensitivity.Yeah, sensitivity, that’ll impress ‘em.The raging mobs that have been thundering through the streets of the Muslim world wielding placards, dummies of western leaders, flags of infidel countries, and of course, Zippo lighters, all suffer from hurt feelings.And nothing gets to the hearts of their radical leaders more than sensitivity and tolerance—once AK47s, rocket-propelled grenades, and nuclear weapons are scratched from the list.

The point is that tolerance of the intolerant and sensitivity to the feelings of those whose mental map is religiously bipolar can go only so far.The real problem with most of the Muslim world, especially the Arab portion, is that it suffers from appalling intellectual impoverishment.This is a statement of fact, not opinion.Indeed, the authors of a report prepared for the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) in 2002 emphasized that it was “written by Arabs for Arabs,” largely to encourage its reception among Muslim scholars in the Middle East.The Middle Eastern Forum gathered comments from a bevy of international experts and observers, whose views are best summed up by historian Victor Davis Hanson: the UNDP’s findings “lend credence to almost everything brave scholars like Bernard Lewis and Daniel Pipes have been saying for years.”

And what they and others have been saying is that ordinary citizens in the Arab world have been deprived by their leaders from any sources of knowledge that offer even the slightest challenges to government imposed dogma.In addition to dismal economic growth in absolute and per capita terms, Arab governments entered the 21st century with over 60 million adult illiterates (out of a combined population of around 280 million).Research and development are negligible, surpassed even by that fossil of the Cold War, Cuba. Ditto for technological innovation and application.By far the worst and most important statistic pertains to translation and dissemination of literature.The entire Arab world translates about one fifth the number of books that are translated annually by Greece.Further, Freedom House ranked Arab countries dead last among seven world regions, according to its freedom score.Which is as much to say that when the infamous “Arab street” erupts with righteous indignation, these hordes of impressionable ignoramuses deserve our sympathy more than our condemnation.

This is not to suggest that flooding the Islamic world with Arabic versions of Nietzsche in a sort of intellectual shock and awe campaign will eventually result in throngs with the temperament of Jimmy Carter.But it is to say that if the Arab street thought those bland Danish cartoons were bad, wait until they wrap their brain cells around “Genealogy of Morals,” “Twilight of the Idols,” or “Thus Spoke Zarathustra.”And the third part of Kant’s “Critique of Pure Reason,” which deals with arguments about the existence of God and regarded by many philosophers as virtually unanswerable, would probably blow their turbans off.Better yet, they should take a good hard look at the work of David Hume, who casually demolished grounds for religious belief in between philosophic yawns, as it were.Further, the research of outstanding Orientalists such as Patricia Crone, Michael Cook, and John Wansbrough, to cite a few, comprises the most intellectually exciting explorations of Islam since the origins of the faith.The point is that every western preacher has had to contend with tomes like these and many more, and yet, miraculously, they have survived the process, often with their faiths strengthened.

Of course, it may be that recommending infidel literature to imams is akin to suggesting that a paraplegic take up golf.But one must start somewhere, and if Western experience is any guide at all, the sheer process of grappling with serious opposition generates a sort of intellectual skin-thickening effect.In short, you become accustomed to opposing points of view and feel less threatened by them.Probably, there are Islamic counterparts to the authors cited above, but I must admit I do not know who they are.More importantly, and tragically, neither do the populations ruled by the mullahs.

All of which leads to the following conclusion.In the long run, Islamdom may claw its way out of its seventh century mentality, but probably under the influence of smart minds and not smart bombs.Eventually, such changes might even put Flags R’ Us out of business and open new markets for Barnes & Noble.

Not a bad trade-off, if you ask me.

Marvin J. Folkertsma

Marvin J. Folkertsma

Dr. Marvin Folkertsma is a professor of political science and fellow for American studies with The Center for Vision & Values at Grove City College. The author of several books, his latest release is a high-energy novel titled "The Thirteenth Commandment."

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