Backward by choice

While the North American press (or parochial narcissist buffoons –PNB – in Mark Steyn’s felicitous phrase) continues to ensure that you can’t see the cartoons about which Islamofascists are rioting worldwide, others are more courageous. Much more.

Dr. Wafa Sultan is a psychologist and a Syrian expatriate who resides in the U.S. She recently appeared on Al-Jazeera television where she attacked Islamists as “backward.” The video is here. You should watch it.

She is articulate and relentless in her contention that the war with Islamofascism is not a clash of civilizations. To summarize Dr. Sultan’s position: To have a clash of civilizations, you’d need a minimum of two civilizations, and Islam is generally too backward to be so considered.

This isn’t mere semantics, she’s asking what “civilization” means, and it caused me to think about evidence that would support her contention of “backwardness.” Not simply evidence of religious frenzy that leads to uncivilized behavior; we have a surfeit of that sort of data; but, since it is possible to imagine an intellectually advanced civilization that behaves in a fashion similar to militant Islam, what would demonstrate “backwardness?”

It certainly isn’t the presence of intellectuals. An intellectually advanced civilization may produce ethicists like Margaret Sanger or Dr. Peter Singer, who argues:

…the value of human existence can be ascertained by the amount of pleasure one derives from life. And sometimes the individual’s pleasure is irrelevant and the pleasure of one’s parents should decide the worthiness of one’s life. He even advocates killing a child below the age of 28 days, if that child’s life can be replaced by a happier one.

In his book, “Practical Ethics,” Professor Singer writes, “When the death of a disabled infant will lead to the birth of another infant with better prospects of a happy life, the total amount of happiness will be greater if the disabled infant is killed. The loss of the happy life for the first infant is outweighed by the gain of a happier life for the second. Therefore, if the killing of the hemophiliac infant has no adverse effect on others it would … be right to kill him.”


Singer [also] claims that some people with life-long cognitive disabilities never become “persons” at any time throughout their lives. He claims that some people who acquire cognitive disabilities cease to be “persons.” For example, Singer writes:

“Only a person can want to go on living, or have plans for the future, because only a person can even understand the possibility of a future existence for herself or himself. This means that to end the lives of people, against their will, is different from ending the lives of beings who are not people. Indeed, strictly speaking, in the case of those who are not people, we cannot talk of ending their lives against or in accordance with their will, because they are not capable of having a will on such a matter. …killing a person against her or his will is a much more serious wrong than killing a being that is not a person. If we want to put this in the language of rights, then it is reasonable to say that only a person has a right to life.” (Rethinking Life and Death (NY: St. Martin’s Press, 1995): 197-198)

This may be considered merely as evidence that elite University professors can be morally confused, but it is manifestly not evidence of a lack of education. Not that “education” equals “advanced”, but we are looking for some basis to distinguish societies in an examination of Dr. Sultan’s claims.

For one thing, without a philosophical underpinning there can be no moral approach to life, and so no point to it. Peter Singer’s philosophical underpinning ends up defining morality as how much pleasure a being can experience, and leads to his claim that animals may be superior to severely disabled people merely because the animals can better experience suffering. A set of philosophical principles, then, is necessary, but not sufficient, to produce ideas generally defensible as moral.

Singer’s philosophy violates the Golden Rule, which I contend is all you need to know about moral codes. This prescription comes, apocryphally, from Rabbi Hillel of Babylonia who, when approached by an unbeliever requesting that the rabbi teach him the whole of the Torah while he stood on one foot, responded: “What you find hateful do not do to another. This is the whole of the Law. Everything else is commentary. Now go and study it.”

Many Westerners equate the Golden Rule with Christianity, which is a cultural and historical blind spot. Its tenets are found in every religion (Satanism excluded) and the idea predates monotheism.

Plato: “May I do to others as I would that they should do unto me.” (Greece; 4th century BCE)
Socrates: “Do not do to others that which would anger you if others did it to you.” (Greece; 5th century BCE)

Almost all religions pay homage to the Golden Rule, and Islam is not an exception:

“None of you [truly] believes until he wishes for his brother what he wishes for himself.” Number 13 of Imam “Al-Nawawi’s Forty Hadiths.”

This sounds fine until you realize that the definition of “brothers” is as important to the outcome as is Peter Singer’s definition of “person.” Singer would not agree that a human being can be defined as an animal, as do Islamists when they seriously describe Jews as pigs and apes, but Singer’s ethics require placing animals’ right to live above that of certain human beings. It is but a small step, especially if supernaturally re-inforced, to defining infidels in general as non-human.

Western religion has historically had no qualms about treating those of a different supernatural persuasion as non-persons. Today, we see Christian religious fundamentalists killing people over abortion; and it has been worse, as those subjected to the mercies of the Inquisition found out. No one in the West today goes on television to cheer on the abortion bombers, however, or promotes videos of the atrocity.

To close the circle on Dr. Sultan’s points, I am led to suggest that science – practiced as a falsifiable, reproducible and open intellectual activity, is a reasonable surrogate for “advanced.” The most important part of this definition is the word “falsifiable” – one can at least imagine objective evidence that would refute a given idea. No argument from the supernatural can qualify. This is why Creationism, in any of its guises, is philosophy, not science, no matter what criticisms may be brought against Darwin.

If commitment to scientific method, and not even necessarily scientific achievement, is a place where one can identify “advancement”, what does it mean to be an Islamic scientist?

The scientific method in its modern form arguably developed in early Muslim philosophy, in particular, citation (“isnad”), peer review and open inquiry leading to development of consensus (“ijma” via “ijtihad”), and a general belief that knowledge reveals nature honestly. During the middle ages, significant advances in mathematics, medicine, astronomy, engineering, and many other fields originated from the Islamic civilization. During this time Islamic philosophy developed and was often pivotal in scientific debates–key figures were usually scientists and philosophers.

Muslim philosophy in this regard seems to have led the West by miles. Islamic science made marvelous contributions to the world, most of which seem to be unrecognized in Western histories of science. This lack of recognition may have more to do with the disappearance of Islam from science after about 1490, however, than with Western perfidy.

Evidence of Arabic contributions to science exist in the names of many stars, but I know of no Arabic equivalent to Galileo. The closest I can come is this blaming of the West, via Galileo, for the plight of Muslims today.

“Today one can find that Muslims have become increasingly marginalized. The literacy among Muslims is about thirty to thirty five percent on the average and among rural women it is only about two to four per cent. The status of Muslims in the present world is at the bottom. Economically Muslims are poor, in education they are backwards and in science and technology they are marginal. There must be a deep examination of what has gone wrong. Why non-Muslims particularly in the West have achieved supremacy in every field of human endeavor.

What is the reason that the Muslims have fallen from a position of top of the civilization to the bottom of civilization? One of the reasons or a major reason is OBSCURANTISM. What is obscurantism? Obscurantism is the act of obscuring, or striving to prevent enlightenment, scientific advancement, modernity or to hinder the progress of knowledge and wisdom.

Obscurantism in Christianity (2)

Galileo and the Holy Inquisition
Many scientists in the West believe religions to be irrational, obscurantist and anti-scientific. The problem goes back to Galileo, who discovered that the earth goes round the sun, rather than vice-versa as stated in the Bible. When he publicized his findings he was arrested by the church on a charge of heresy and threatened with torture and burning at the stake unless he withdrew them. He offered the chance for his accusers to confirm his findings by observation through his telescope. They refused – if the facts were contrary to holy scripture then the facts must be wrong.

The burning times
During the centuries when the church held political power, numerous other investigators of the natural world were tortured to death or burnt at the stake for their curiosity. The early pioneers of biochemistry and pharmacology paid a heavy price. Anyone who was adept at herbal healing (herbology or phytopharmacology) was particularly likely to attract the attention of the church as if he/she practiced Wicca –one variety of witchcraft. Successful practitioners of Wicca were in league with the devil. In most rural communities throughout Europe such expertise was in the possession of elderly women, who were persecuted mercilessly by the Inquisition and other ecclesiastical authorities. These witch-hunts continued until the eventual triumph of reason over obscurantism during the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries (a period known as the Enlightenment).

A very famous example of obscurantism is the use in medieval Europe of Latin (an otherwise dead language) as the tongue of religious and intellectual discourse both verbal and written. This avoidance of the vernacular allowed the Catholic Church, and it’s approved adjuncts such as the cathedral schools and the universities, to retain an effective monopoly on the inherited knowledge of the Classical era. This control over the writings of the Greco-Roman philosophers, mathematicians and theologians allowed the authorities to maintain a stranglehold on higher education, scientific inquiry and the direction of European political and moral thought up until the advent of Humanism during the intellectual revolution known to us as the Renaissance. It may seem unlikely that a simple control over whom could read which book allowed the Church to maintain a leading position in Europe for several centuries. However the idea becomes less infeasible when it is remembered that there were quite simply no other sources of information on the wider world available at the time. No one in medieval Europe could gain an education that was not colored and constrained by the doctrine and taboos of the Church. Anything, which disagreed with doctrine, was likely to be either hidden away or destroyed as the work of the Devil. The Church, as keeper of the wisdom of the ancients was final arbiter over truth in medieval Europe and, as in the case of Galileo, could stifle entire ‘unacceptable’ schools of thought if it chose.

The intellectual monopoly of the Catholic Church over Europe is only the most famous example of obscurantism in action. During the same period the presentation of cases in courts of law commonly had to be made in the language of the learned (ie: Latin). This served not only to make cases involving peoples of different nations possible, but also to lend an air of majestic mystique to what was often little more than petty wrangles over money or land. Both the religious and the secular usage of Latin in medieval Europe serves to illustrate something about the nature of obscurantism: namely that it plays upon the ignorance of the person watching, or upon the feeling of superiority he may feel over the ignorant.

Left unexplained here is how Western repression of science was so much more effective against Islamic scientists than against the Western scientists to whom it was directly applied. An explanation blaming outsiders for losing such a massive lead – in an area most conducive to maintaining leadership – is suspect. This seems to fully support Dr. Sultan’s argument that Muslims are whining, as does this argument against attempts to pass off the Q’uran as scientifically prescient:

Muslim Fundamentalists are fond of claiming that the Koran miraculously predicted the findings of modern science, and that all of its factual scientific claims are flawless. There are two important objections to this claim that I will make, one pointing to a general problem, the other a specific example of the failure of the claim. The tactic in general has also been criticised by Muslim intellectual Imran Aijaz (see part 2 of “Evidentialist Apologetics in Islam) and I have criticised other examples of it elsewhere (“The Koran Predicted the Speed of Light? Not Really,” “Predicting Modern Science: Epicurus vs. Mohammed,” and a past forum discussion about ants).

Much of the fundamentalist’s evidence for this alleged miracle is actually moot, since it represents scientific knowledge that had been known in both the Mediterranean and Middle East for centuries before the Koran was written. Things like this have proven hard to explain to fanatics who are more practiced at pious denials than in actual historical research. For what follows, I am repeating common knowledge in the field of medieval history, and I refer doubters to the bibliography at the end of this essay.

Such misdirection of intellectual capital into glorifying the Q’uranic gospel at the expense of reason, cannot “advance” one’s society. “How many angels can dance on the head of a pin?” is no longer interesting, even philosophically.

The question of the decline in Islamic science is, I suggest, answered by the continuing enforced ascendancy of religious dogma over rational thought. This is another of Dr. Sultan’s points.

My conclusion is that the modern ascendancy of the West is due to the ability of Judeo-Christian culture to have overcome tribalism and superstition during the Enlightenment. This may even have been an accident of history, but that is irrelevant, and it cannot be imagined to have been directed against Islam.

More fully accepting the Golden Rule distinguishes the West from Islam in many ways, science not least. Christianity had a hard time overcoming its biases; Islam has found it impossible. The Enlightenment – the birth of modern Western values – is based on a simple extension of the Golden Rule to include those of other “tribes” who may not share your dogma.

The strain of Islam which dominates today’s headlines never experienced its own Enlightenment. Until it does, a rational discussion will not be possible. I think this is also among Dr. Sultan’s points.

I thank her for the obvious courage it took to say such things on Jihadist TV.

Update: 5-Mar, 6:38PM – various minor corrections.