A few days ago, I was sitting at home undergoing a multicultural musical experience. I was, in fact, listening to a number of Qawwali songs from Pakistan. For many years, singers like Aziz Mian and the Sabri Brothers (all now deceased) have been favourites of mine. Qawwali will never take the place of the Portuguese fado I have known and loved for so long, or the traditional Irish music I have known all my life. But it is a vibrant and energetic form of singing and musicianship that carries in its heart the Sufi poetry of the region, of northern India, parts of Pakistan, and Bangladesh. Look for it on YouTube, it will surprise you.
Although this is religious poetry from the Sufi tradition, it plays a wider part in society. One excellent performance by Aziz Mian has an audience made up of upper-class Pakistanis, including young women, some of them extremely beautiful (go here). That in itself shows the complications of Pakistani society.
Sufism is a spiritual tradition that has always stood in contrast to the worldly concerns of the rich and powerful. In Qawwali concerts like this, two realities are mixed. Not only that, but men and women are sitting together, another contradiction and an affront to the religious authorities who like to tell other Pakistanis how to live their lives. There are Westerners in this audience, and even if the men and women dress in traditional clothes, there are no veils. It's hard to believe an assembly like this would shut the door on non-Muslims who wanted to watch and listen to a great figure of Pakistani culture.
In the West, a better-known product of Pakistani culture is a 16-year-old schoolgirl from the Swat Valley. Just over a year ago, Malala Youssefzai lay dangerously wounded after a Taliban assassin shot her in the head at close range. Malala was already an advocate of education for girls, but the Taliban condemned female education and shut down as many schools as they could, threatening death to students and teachers alike. The bullies won out, bombing and burning out schools that would not bend to their hatred of women and knowledge. Malala spoke out from her small village school until, in 2012, the Taliban decided to take revenge and silence her voice forever. Except that their ill-fated attempt did the opposite.
In Birmingham, in the wicked West, doctors saved her life. In due course, she recovered from her injuries. Since then she has gone on to become a symbol of everything the Taliban hate, a symbol for peace, co-existence, and, above all, education. She is known all over the world. She is already one of the most famous Pakistanis, male or female, to have lived. She was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, the youngest ever nominee, and she came very close indeed to receiving it.
She has been given enough prestigious awards to last her several lifetimes, and may well enter the Guinness Book of Records for their sheer number. She has been received by the U.S. President and the Queen of Great Britain, by Prime Ministers, and innumerable dignitaries everywhere. She has spoken to the General Assembly of the United Nations. No matter where she goes, people listen to her. She talks of peace and education, and her message goes deep. Instead of silencing her, the Taliban turned her into a megaphone to trumpet aloud the emptiness of their philosophy.
You would think the Pakistanis would love her to bits, and, of course, large numbers of them do. She's bigger than all the Qawwali singers put together. Her name is everywhere. One day, she could stand for the post of Prime Minister. And God help the Taliban if that day ever dawns.
But a week or two ago, I came across a news item that disturbed me greatly. Two organizations representing private schools in Pakistan have banned her book, I Am Malala from more than 40,000 schools across Pakistan. The book, apparently, is an insult to Islam and shows Malala herself to be nothing more than a tool of the West. So, the leaders of an important sector of the Pakistani educational world has chosen to ban Pakistan's best-known and most loved proponent of education, not just in Pakistan, but all around the world. It sounds like some sick joke, but it's true. This is happening in a country that can't even provide even primary education for half its children.
Malala's influence on young Pakistani girls and teenagers has been and remains enormous. Pakistan (as I shall argue) needs educated men and women to produce a better-educated workforce that will help the country compete in the international marketplace. According to UNESCO, Pakistan's literacy rate places the country at 113 out of 120 countries surveyed. In some places, the female literacy rate stands at 3 percent. And two educational bodies are banning an innocuous book by the country's foremost advocate of female education. And Pakistanis almost lead the world in their hatred of Jews and Israel.
Why has this estimable book been banned? Simple: about a month before the edict, the Pakistani Tehreek-e Taliban had issued the threat that it would target any shop that tried to sell the book. They added that they would kill Malala in the end.
The problems with the book are essentially religious problems, problems that show yet again how obstinate Islam is to the slightest hint of change. For example, we are told that when Malala (or her ghostwriter) wrote the name of the prophet, Muhammad, she did not add the letters PBUH — Peace Be Upon Him — or SAW to stand for the Arabic equivalent, Salla'llah 'alayhi wa sallam. We are once more in the realm of a neurosis that has put its grip on Muslims around the world. I encountered this same problem in the 1970s in Iran: nothing has changed.
Writing in English, it is not common usage much less obligatory to place honorifics after names. You can call me Denis MacEoin MA, PhD if you need to, but just the name will suffice in all but very formal situations. Adding phrases like these (and they are used after more than just the names of prophets) makes it very hard indeed for scholars of religion or history to write in a neutral style.
Malala's next mistake was to pass on her father's views on Salman Rushdie's infamous novel, The Satanic Verses, which had drawn down on the author threats of murder and mayhem. 'Malala says that her father sees The Satanic Verses as "offensive to Islam but believes strongly in the freedom of speech." "First, let's read the book and then why not respond with our own book" the book quotes her father as saying. So it's not enough to find the book offensive, but we can't even read it or talk about it? And Pakistan is almost at the bottom of the heap when it comes to education. Need we ask why?
Another matter found offensive by these giants of Pakistani education was Malala's reference to the two million-strong Ahmadi community, a religious group that has been declared non-Muslim by the Pakistani government, and which suffers prolonged and severe persecution without any attempt to protect them by the authorities. Malala simply calls for some degree of tolerance and is castigated for it by the obscurantists who control everything in a country determined to set its face against the nineteenth, twentieth, and twenty-first centuries.
Despite the largely secularist policies and intentions of Jinnah, Pakistan is still under the thumb of the holier-than-thou men in beards and turbans, men who always know more than anyone else, even the best educated, who are always closer to God than anyone else, and who reckon they know how to put their fingers on apostasy and unbelief wherever they rear their ugly heads. Even if they don't raise their heads, the mullas can always make them up.
Fortunately, there are other voices in Pakistan. Perhaps the loudest is Pervez Hoodbhoy, an openly-avowed supporter of Malala, the remarkable Professor of Nuclear Physics at Islamabad's Quaid-i-Azam University, a man who has won almost as many awards as she has. Active in many fields, he has devoted much of his writing and debating to education, and he has extolled the benefits of secularism and deplored the harm done to his country by the religious leadership and their insistence on hardline, unchanging traditionalism.
'No major invention or discovery has emerged from the Muslim world for well over seven centuries now. That arrested scientific development is one important element—although by no means the only one—that contributes to the present marginalization of Muslims and a growing sense of injustice and victimhood.' ('Science and the Islamic World – The quest for rapprochement', Physics Today, August 2007.)
In a compelling and insightful article, he examines the roots of the modern problem through four 'metrics': the quantity of scientific output, the role played by science and technology in national economies, the extent and quality of higher education, and the degree to which science is present or absent in popular culture.
He cites a study from the International Islamic University in Malaysia, which shows that Muslim countries have a mere 8.5 scientists, engineers, and technicians per 1000 population, compared with a world average of 40.7 and 139.3 for countries of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). Forty-six Muslim countries together contributed 1.17% of the world's science literature, yet 1.66% came from India and 1.48% from Spain. Of the 28 lowest producers of scientific articles in 2003, no fewer than half belonged to Muslim countries. By another measure, he points out that his own country, Pakistan, has produced a mere 8 patents in 43 years. More Israeli (population 7.5 million) patents are registered in the United States than from Russia, India and China combined (combined population 2.5 billion).
He adds that "no Pakistani university, including QAU, allowed Mohammad Abdus Salam to set foot on its campus, although he had received the Nobel Prize in 1979 for his role in formulating the standard model of particle physics." The reason? Abdus Salam belonged to the deeply unpopular and much persecuted Ahmadi sect (referred to by Malala), the only Islamic denomination to forbid jihad. Imagine any of my old universities (Dublin, Edinburgh, or Cambridge) refusing entry to a Nobel Prize winner who happened to be a Jew or a Muslim or a Seventh-Day Adventist.
This inability to match up to the challenges of the modern world has much to do with a reluctance to obtain knowledge from non-Muslim sources. The UN Arab Human Development Report for 2003 makes this clear:
given that 'English represents around 85 percent of the total world knowledge balance,' one might guess that 'knowledge-hungry countries,' the Arab states included, would take heed of the sway of English, or at the very least, would seek out the English language as a major source of translation. Yet, from all source-languages combined, the Arab world's 330 million people translated a meager 330 books per year; that is, 'one fifth of the number [of books] translated in Greece [home to 12 million Greeks].' Indeed, from the times of the Caliph al-Ma'mun (ca. 800 CE) to the beginnings of the twenty-first century, the 'Arab world' had translated a paltry 10,000 books: the equivalent of what Spain translates in a single year.
Now, surely you've been wondering when I would get back to Israel. That was the real reason for my writing this piece. There is, of course, an enormous disparity between the scientific, medical, and technological work done in Israel, the Start-up Nation, and the near total absence of such work in Pakistan, with its 8 patents in 43 years. In part,it's a failure of education for the population; but Hoodbhoy says that isn't the real cause of the backwardness. More than anything, it's a total failure of all Muslim societies to understand that proper knowledge is obtained through hard questions, painful criticism, and a lack of control over what may be asked or answered. When trivial religious reasons are cited for the banning of a book, when certain types of research are considered inappropriate or blasphemous, when academics or journalists can lose their jobs for daring to point out deficiencies in society or religion — obscurantism triumphs and whole populations are forced to live in the Dark Ages.
Critics of Malala say she has become a tool of the West, a Trojan Horse whose books attempts to bring dangerous Western views into the public arena. As usual, conspiracy theories abound, protecting Muslims from even the mildest of criticism, the very whiff of dialogue. It is this same obscurantism that has created in a majority of Muslims — Deobandis and Barelwis alike — the false idea that the state of Israel is inimical to Islam, that it wages war on innocent Muslims, that it is a modern embodiment of the Jewish conspiracies of the time of Muhammad, that Jews are bitter enemies of Muslims, and that it has been planted by the West in the Arab world to serve as a modern colony.
Sensible debate would have shown many years ago that Jews are not enemies and that Israel prefers to help Muslims, not hurt them — something it has demonstrated again and again yet never received much gratitude for. The Taliban use violence or the threat to use it, while other 'ulama use other forms of threats to ensure their control over all intellectual issues, pretending they know God's will and offering a wide range of social sanctions. In a country like Pakistan, where the very thought of shame can prompt a man to murder his wife or daughters, the mere suggestion of divine displeasure is more than enough to make all but the most foolhardy to pull back from controversy or the very breath of it. Apostates are killed.
It's like this across the Muslim world, but the religious fanaticism is getting worse in country after country. Everywhere it is a way to sign your own death warrant just to say you like some Jews or that you visited Israel and found it a good place for a Muslim to be, or that you think Riff Cohen is cool (and she is!) or you are turned on by the laid-back voice of Ethiopian-Israeli singer Ester Rada or that hating Jews is a no-no or that it's time for the Palestinians to build their state and to leave Israel alone. Or whatever. Palestinians have been executed for selling land to Jews. Your life isn't yours when the self-appointed dictators of Islamic righteousness take over.
The backwardness of the Islamic mentality manifests itself in innumerable ways, but nowhere more than in hatred of the state of Israel. Like the postmodernist thinking that has infected so much of the Western left, this hatred rocks the known world from its moorings. Next time there's an earthquake or a tsunami in the Muslim world, the governments concerned will help their people by refusing entry to the highly trained and experienced Israeli aid workers who have already helped the distressed in 140 countries. In 2004, following a major earthquake in Iran, Israelis offered aid: they were told where to go. Some years later, after a disaster in Pakistan, both Indian and Israeli volunteers were turned back at the border.
Left-wing activists call Israel a Nazi state and an apartheid state, when the opposite is true. The Malala Youssefzai case is a pale reflection of this, turning things round in accordance with the whims of bigoted and uneducated shaykhs. There are educated Muslim clerics, but few have more than a smattering of secular or Western knowledge. They don't know how to read a book like The Satanic Verses or I Am Malala, and they can't read a progressive, balanced country like Israel. Only rare men like Pervez Hoodbhoy speak out about the challenges faced by Pakistan, because they have had a secular education. Christians went through the Enlightenment and came out better for it. Jews went through the Haskalah and, to a large extent, became the kind of Jews who created modern Israel. But the Muslim world has known no Enlightenment and no Haskalah, hasn't even had its own Reformation. It's time politicians recognized that this is the source of the impasse between Israel and its neighbours. Politics are not, on the whole, the problem. The problem is unenlightened men who treat a progressive schoolgirl like a pariah.
Denis MacEoin is a Senior Editor of the Middle East Quarterly.