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Banning the book

November 18, 2013

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WHAT do extremist groups like Nigeria’s Boko Haram, Mali’s Ansar Dine and the Pakistani Taliban – to name only a few – have in common apart from their pathological violence and fanaticism? An abiding distrust of education and modernity.

This has been amply demonstrated by the Nigerian group, whose name literally means ‘books are sinful’. In attacks across the country, they have butchered young students by the hundred, apart from slaughtering thousands of Christians in churches and in their homes.

In Mali, when Tuareg and foreign jihadis swept into the ancient town of Timbuktu last year, among their first targets were the shrines of saints and scholars. The historic town of Timbuktu is the repository of thousands of mediaeval texts in Arabic as it once boasted of many Islamic seminaries that attracted Muslim thinkers from many countries.

While locals hid most of these priceless documents, and smuggled others out of the beleaguered city, scores were burned by the Al Qaeda and Ansar Dine terrorists. In a recent article in the New York Review, Joshua Hammer describes what happened when the jihadis – who included men from Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Somalia and Mali – took over the city:

“Unveiled women and teenaged girls were dragged back to the [Malian Solidarity Bank] and locked for days inside the ATM booth, a tiny cubicle sealed by an iron gate. Thieves would appear before the sharia court in the La Maison hotel… and were sentenced to public whippings. The sandy depression behind the Libya Hotel … became the city’s execution and amputation ground.”

These barbaric punishments were all these armed thugs had to offer the people of Timbuktu. So when the French intervened and threw them out, there was a collective sigh of relief. Those who pine for the ‘pure Islamic paradise on earth’ promised by the Taliban need to see them for what they really are.

Boko Haram’s then leader, Mohammed Yusuf, said in a BBC interview in 2009 that the world was not round, Darwinian evolution did not happen, and that rainfall was not caused by water evaporation from the oceans. This ignorance is a hallmark of the foot soldiers of the jihad, and most of their leaders.

We in Pakistan do not have to look very far for instances of this kind of backwardness. Hundreds of schools have been blown up, barber shops attacked and DVD outlets forced to close. The ostensible reason is that they promote Western values. In the minds of many Muslims, the equation is straightforward: ‘modern’ equals ‘Western’ equals ‘sinful’.

And yet these same barbarians have no problem with other products of modern education: witness their harnessing of the Internet and cellphone technologies for their purposes. In Afghanistan, the Taliban banned all female education and blocked women from being treated by male doctors, causing many deaths and needless suffering.

This misogyny is another feature of jihadi thinking: women must be kept locked up and controlled. Any education might give them thoughts of freedom and independence. Actually, many conservative believers share elements of these views, and hence the tacit support the Taliban and their ilk enjoy among fundamentalists.

For all their faults, leaders like Saddam Hussein and Bashar al-Assad did encourage women to acquire an education and join men in the work place. They also gave minorities equal rights. These ‘heretical’ views and policies were deeply resented and opposed by extremists. In Iraq today, women face oppression at the hands of clerics and Islamic parties in a manner that was alien to the country when it was ruled by Saddam’s Ba’ath Party. Hundreds of thousands of Christians have been forced to flee their homes after hundreds were killed. This is the prospect faced by Syrian women and minorities should Bashar al-Assad be toppled.

One major factor underlying this extremist hatred for modernity is that it mostly empowers and benefits only those equipped with an education. And this excludes those whose only contact with the written word consists of the rote learning of holy texts as promoted by an increasing number of Wahabi-funded madressahs across the Muslim world.

Uneducated jihadis forget that much of the foundation for modern – and what they call ‘Western’ – education was laid by Muslim scholars centuries ago. True, there has been virtually no contribution made to human knowledge by Muslims in recent times, but that’s our own fault. By closing our minds to modern developments in much of the last millennium, we have opted out of the wave of scientific discoveries in the past few hundred years.

This attitude has caused the ongoing decline of the Muslim world that began with Europe’s Industrial Revolution. As European traders searched for new markets and sources of spices and gold, priests, adventurers and finally, armies followed in their tracks. The era of colonisation had begun.

Many Muslims, led by clerics, rejected the modern education introduced by their colonial rulers, sticking to their old, familiar ways. They also turned their backs on all Western influences. Much of this rejection was caused by resentment over being displaced by upstart Europeans.

But this attitude has cost the Muslim world dearly. Apart from being the direct cause of our backwardness, it has encouraged the emergence of militant groups who seek to alter the balance of power through global terrorism. Rather than try and catch up with the rest of the world, they want to drag the rest of humanity back to the 6th century.

In that era, it was the man with the sword – not the pen – who called the shots. Today, without a good education, there is little chance of succeeding in an increasingly competitive and connected world. For millions of poorly educated young Muslims, there is little hope of a decent life. So it should not surprise us that they should seek to change the playing field by stopping others from acquiring an education. Hence Boko Haram.