January 3rd, 2009

before the light


Often, when I tell people about my feelings about how horrible I imagine it would be to be married off by my father, or complain about some other aspect of Islamic or medieval Christian culture, I am told that if I had only grown up in that culture, I wouldn't feel that way. But I read books like Ayaan Hirsi Ali's Infidel, or read about all the witches and heretics that were burned or stoned or cast out of communities for asking questions and refusing to comply, I have to honestly think that I would be one of these people. That it's not just because my parents wouldn't answer questions but just told me to look them up that I became so iconoclastic and rebellious. It wasn't just their belief in the importance of education that made we question the things that I was taught. I am frequently told that my first and favourite question was always "why?" And it was always important to me for things to make sense, to be internally consistent. This isn't something that my parents have ever told me; it just is. I didn't become an atheist because of anything in particular that I'd read, because of some atheist book, but rather simply because what I was taught didn't make any sense, and my failure to bring order to the contradictions failed so badly. Like anyone else I had moments of weakness where I wished I was more like everyone else, or just went along with what was going on for a while, but ultimately I could not endure such a situation for very long. It was too difficult. When I read a book like Infidel, I feel very fortunate that I did not start out in such a place as Ayaan, but I can't help but think that if I had, I would have fought just as hard to question and insist that those questions be answered... or come to the obvious conclusion from to failure to do so.

I also can't help but chuckle every time she referred to something as "stupid". :)

Infidel really is an amazing book that alternately makes me beam with pride and breaks my heart. Anyone who wants to know what an average Muslim woman really thinks, and wants to hear it from someone unafraid to say it, should read this book.

It also serves to reinforce certain political views that I have about dealing with Islamic countries, particularly in the Middle East. Bush's plan to simply overturn Islamic dictators and replacing them with Islamic democracies does nothing to improve the conditions in the country. A majority of hardline Islamicists have absolutely no problem using "majority rule" to oppress minorities and women. Iraq is a perfectly good example of the very predictable results. Nothing has really changed in Iraq for education or the status of women or religious minorities, and apostates are still threatened with execution. Sharia law is Sharia law whether it's run by a democratic government or a dictatorial one.

Instead, what these countries need is education. And not religious education or job training. Not just basic reading and arithmetic. You can see the consequences of focusing on just these things in our own country: the population remains ignorant and stupid. They need to be exposed to these things, but also philosophy, psychology, critical thinking, logic, science and knowledge of other countries and other ways of life. They need to taught civics, and obeying the rule of a secular law. They need to be gotten to as children, and it needs to be done free of religion. Encouraging them to draw their own conclusions will do just fine.

This last bit may sound like a contradiction with my position on teaching creationism in schools... but this is not a "teach the controversy" bit of nonsense. In America, this is going backwards. In the Middle East, you have to start somewhere. But I don't propose giving the religious cover for denying evolution. The teachers are not responsible for teaching anything but science. Part of the problem with the debate in America today, is that students can still draw their own conclusions; it's just not the responsibility of the schools to the job of religious education: that half must be done by the parents.

If you look back at the history of the West, democratic societies don't rise up spontaneously. Where they have, like in France, without the preliminaries teaching people the "rules" of a democracy, the government rises and falls and is subject to corruption because the only model they have experience of is autocracy. That is what we've set up in Iraq. Without that experience and base of education, there is little hope the government will last, or that it will do better than Saddam's government in oppressing the citizens. (And I should point out, this is about as far from Christopher Hitchens position as you can get. One can agree in the need to "defeat" fundamentalist Islam, without feeling the need to carpet bomb the entire region. And my position is just as true for Hinduism, Orthodox Judaism, and right wing Christianity.)

Reading a book like Infidel, and many of the others that I read and describe on this blog, reinforce the ideas in my head, and the need I feel to confront truth ruthlessly. Many find this intolerant. But I don't consider an appreciation of facts and logical consistency to be intolerant. Argue with me, fine, but do so with the facts. Don't reject things because they don't agree with your prejudices. Don't give me bullshit conspiracy theories. And most of all, don't pretend I'm too stupid to understand. Facts. Logic. Nothing else.