Education is usually seen as a universal ‘good’. But recent world events suggest that education is not necessarily a ‘good’ in itself, and may in fact, be a horrifically destructive force. An educational battle of titanic proportions is taking place in many parts of the world. It is rarely discussed but continues to have a profound effect on world history. I’m talking about the impact of fundamentalist Islamic, Jewish and Christian teaching and methods on the minds young people in theist schools, using religious texts as the ultimate authority. Education, as practiced in fundamentalist Islamic, Jewish and Christian places of learning are, in my view, damaging, leading to intolerance and political conflict. Interestingly, in all three there is a similar focus on the powerful recitation and repeated readings of a basic book. This, the three Abrahamic religions have in common. We needn’t be surprised at this, since the three religions are entwined with each other through their books. The Torah, five books of Moses, are included in the expanded Old Testament of the Christians and The Koran draws from the Torah, regarding it as the word of Allah given to Moses. The Koran refers to Mohammed as the prophet mentioned in the Torah.
What I’m saying here is that the educational power of recitation, repetition and memorisation is massively effective and therefore massively limiting and destructive in terms of critical thinking and tolerance. Education without critical thinking has immense destructive power.
Islamic education – conviction and recitation
Koran means ‘recitation’. In Islamic teaching, everything stems from the pages of this one book. It was meant to be read aloud to promote recitation and memorising of the book, through repeated spoken readings, has always been highly prized in the Islamic world. But this comes at a price. This repeated repetition is massively effective in learning and results in the deep processing and retention of the text, and the unshiftable, dogmatic convictions that come with deeply held knowledge and belief. In short, it is an educational recipe for dogmatic fanaticism.
It is impressive and common to witness the devotional prayers in Muslim countries, from mass attendances in Mosques to single musilms praying on any available spot. It’s a five times a day ritual, but worrying to think that this lifelong example of spaced practice, may squeeze out learning that is incompatible with the precepts of the Koran. It is an example of successful learning that, in itself can prevent further learning. Wherever I go in the Islamic world I see the rise of religious and regressive educational systems. Education is gradually becoming politicised by active religious believers, and inept and ineffective governments. The educated elite continue to educate their children abroad, while populations turn to religious schools that encourage conformity, not critical analysis.
The teaching in fundamentalist Islamic schools teaches that God passed his thoughts through the archangel Gabriel directly to the illiterate Mohammed over a period of years, as the final prophet to mankind, the final expression of God’s will. It is a text ridden with the primitive beliefs of its age and, at times, downright primitive in its prescriptions against women and non-believers.
Philip Hitti’s classic the History of the Arabs has an excellent chapter on the history of Islamic education. Schools were, and are going back to becoming adjuncts of the Mosque with the entire curriculum being base on the Koran. Memory work is particularly emphasised. Even today there are high rewards for children who manage to memorise the Koran. Interestingly, the teacher was not highly regarded in Islamic history, often a low status figure, even figure of fun. More recently we have seen the massive increase in the number of schools that are primarily religious. Organisations such as the Muslim Brotherhood, Hezbollah and Hamas are often the only organisations to provide adequate education for the poor, as the governments are often too corrupt and uncaring to do it properly.
Jewish education – chosen conviction
Torah means ‘teaching’, ‘instruction’ or ‘doctrine’. Its 613 commandments, split into 365 negative and 248 positive moral imperatives. Again, like the Koran, it is believed to have been written by divine revelation, this time by Moses. Reading the Torah aloud is central to Jewish ritual. As with Islam and the Koran, the repeated and cyclical recitation leads to deeply processed knowledge and beliefs. Orthodox believers take every word literally, something they have in common with Islamic fundamentalist believers. There is a deep split in Israel between orthodox and other schools and a battle currently raging to defend religious Torah-based schools. Half of all students in Jerusalem attend ultra-Orthodox ‘heredi’ schools. 70% of ultra-Orthodox men don’t work as it interferes with their religious studies. This is a group that, like their Islamic and fundamentalist Christian believers abhor homosexuality and have been known to attack women who they deem to be improperly dressed. Unlike most secular countries, this religious power reaches right up into government, especially in the settler communities. The majority of the illegal settler communities are ultra-Orthodox or Religious Zionists, all driven by the belief that their land rights are given by God, as if he were some sort of racially motivated real estate agent. Land ownership is not a covenant from God.
The problems in the Middle East focus on Israel and peace agreements are almost impossible to complete because of the extremists on both sides. If you’ve ever travelled in Israel you will have experienced the aloofness ultra-orthodox Jews. That’s fine. I have no problem with people doing their own thing, but when it comes to illegal settlements, stealing other people’s land, bulldozing their properties and bombing them into submission with tanks and artillery, on the grounds that ‘God gave them the right’, it is downright obscene. Religious learning results in convictions about land occupation that has resulted in millions spending their entire lives in refugee camps.
Christian education – Christ and conviction
It may now be possible to become President of the USA if you’re black, brown, yellow or a woman. But if you don’t believe in God, or more particularly, you’re not a Christian – forget it. It will be interesting to observe whether Obama dares to avoid using explicitly Christian language in his inauguration speech.
Fundamentalist Christian education is on the rise and it’s squeezing into our schools through anti-evolution, homophobic, anti stem-cell research, pro-life stances that take us backwards not forwards. We’ve had a Bush presidency that has been arguably the worst in US history, sure of their religious supremacy to the level of waging war on those who don’t. Its disdain for international law, the legitimisation of torture and hostility towards the United Nations, was, in part, driven by fundamentalist religious believers.
American has recently been, in many ways, a theocracy. American Theocracy by Kevin Phillips warned in 2006 of Bush’s preacher-ridden, debt-bloated regime, if left unchecked, would become untenable. Boy did he get than one right! At the core of the Bush regime is militant religion, a growing fundamentalist and evangelical movement that has waged a ‘thinly disguised US crusade against radical Islam’. Its megachurches, televangelism and the fact that 1 in 4 Americans is affiliated with a conservative Protestant church.
Things are a little different in the more secular Europe, but in the UK, and in Northern Ireland and Scotland, the existence of segregated schools continues to generate antagonistic values that have led to decades of murders and bombings. Then there was the horrors of the Balkans.
NOT Islamophobia, Anti-semitism or Anti-Christian
This is not an exercise in Islamophobia, anti-semitism or anti-Christian. In fact the most extreme forms of these phenomena come from each of the sets of three fundamentalists attacking each other, not secular groups. I have spend more time travelling in Islamic countries and love the art, architecture, cultures and people. What I don’t admire is the crippling effect of fundamentalist education. At its worst they kill school teachers and deny girls and women the basic right to education, but even at the moderate level it seems to deaden real inquiry and critical thinking. The fundamentalists may win because they understand that education is the key to long-term success. This is the clear strategy of the smarter political movements, such as the Muslim Brotherhood, Hezbollah and Hamas. They, in turn, are reacting to the hideous beliefs of Jewish settlers who stole their land and confine them to fenced in camps. I have also been to Israel and witnessed the brutality of an occupying force towards people in Gaza and the West bank, people who did little more than resist when the land they had occupied for centuries was stolen. Fundamentalist Judaism is frighteningly racist. My experience in the US is perhaps greater than that of the other two. I studied at a US Ivy League university, worked there and have travelled there more times than I can remember, over a period of thirty years. The televangelism, megachurches and obsessions with homophobia, abortion and creationism, still shock me. US fundamentalists funded and supported Bush in his maniacal support of Israel and firestorms in the Middle East. Let’s hope that Obama keeps his ambiguous religious beliefs out of politics.
Any school or teacher who professes belief in the literal truth ofreligious texts, revealed through divine revelation, is in my view, a danger. I believe in secular education and don’t like religious schools in any guise. I was brought up in a highly divided society in Scotland, where segregated schools are still the norm, much to Scotland’s shame. Watching today's events in Gaza is even more depressing and the US abstaining on the UN resolution, perhaps the last evil last gasp from Bush's cronies a matter of deep shame. Keep education secular.