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Epistemology to the Muslim World

In a recent article, Khaled Abu Toameh, the Palestinian journalist who moved from the Palestinian press to the Jerusalem Post so that he could practice his profession with integrity, recalled that “Mahmoud Abbas’s official news agency, Wafa, reported that Israel had released poison-resistant rats to drive Arab residents of Jerusalem out of their homes.” The Wafa report claimed that “settlers flood the Old City of Jerusalem with rats.” Abu Toameh added sardonically: “It is not clear how these rats were taught to stay away from Jews, who also happen to live in the Old City.”

Abu Toameh may not have considered the possibility that Israel’s infamous spy agency, Mossad, had found a way to train rats to infest only gentiles. There is now evidence that the Mossad has adapted this technique for use with sharks. Earlier this month at least two sharks attacked five European tourists off Sharm al-Sheik, Egypt, killing one. No Israeli swimmers were targeted by the sharks. According to the governor of Southern Sinai, Abed Al-Fadij, “We must not discount the possibility that Mossad threw the shark into the sea, in order to attack tourists who are having fun in Sharm al-Sheikh. Mossad is trying to hurt Egyptian tourism in any way possible, and the shark is one way for it to realize its plan.”

Apparently Egyptian tourism ranks right up there with the Iranian nuclear program as a threat to Israel. Another top threat is Mexican lawmaking. I learned this in Jeddah three years ago, when one of the barons of Saudi industry hosted me for lunch in his elegant executive dining room. In excellent English, this influential Saudi told me about the Israel spy agency’s bungled attempt to blow up the Mexican legislature.

Why would the Israelis want to bomb the Mexican legislature? My host was not sure, but he assured me that “everyone knows” they had done it. I persisted in my skepticism, explaining that I had not heard of this incident in any US news outlet. “Of course,” replied my host. “They’ve suppressed the story.” There was no need for him to remind me that Jews control the news media. What he also couldn’t explain was how the omnipotent Mossad could have botched the job.

This, after all, is the same agency that not only knows how to manipulate rats and sharks to spare Jews like the angel of death who passed over Jewish homes to persuade Pharaoh to let Moses lead the Jews out of Egypt. It is also the agency managed to warn 4,000 Jewish employees at the World Trade Center not to come to work on September 11, 2001, or to pass the warning on to their non-Jewish coworkers — a fact known to tens of millions of people across the Arab world.

There are laughs aplenty to be found in such stories, but in the end they are quite chilling. In 2002, a groundbreaking Arab Human Development report, written by a team of Arab scholars for the UN Development Program, pointed to three crippling deficits in the Arab world: freedom, knowledge, and women’s participation. These are indeed weaknesses in need of remediation.

But perhaps none is as glaring or damaging as the deficit of epistemology. Yes, in part the widespread Arab credulity toward the most cockamamie stories may reflect the region’s low rates of education. But my Saudi interlocutor was university-educated, and so in all likelihood was the Egyptian governor of South Sinai and the Wafa journalist who sniffed out the Israeli rat stratagem. So what we have here is a deficit not of knowledge but of the ability to make mature judgments about what is plausible and what is not.

Whence does this arise? I do not know. Surely it does not help that Islam emphasizes learning by rote rather than logic, memorization of the Quran being the most widely recognized, albeit not the highest, theological achievement. (It is recognized even by President Obama, who boasted that the ambassador he appointed to the Organization of the Islamic Conference is a “hafez,” one who has committed the Quran to heart.)

Whatever the source, the consequences are devastating. How do you make peace — which, no matter what guarantees are built in, must include an element of trust and good faith — with people whose mental universe is not wholly contained within the world of reality?

It is often said in Western discourse these days that the Muslim world needs to experience an analog to the age of enlightenment. But the real need is for something that happened in Christendom one hundred years earlier, namely an age of reason. There may never come a Muslim Voltaire with his ferocious assault on religion; and I am not sure that I would wish it upon Islam. But the Muslim world desperately needs its Descartes.

Were I the one setting priorities for Western aid to the Muslim world, public or private, I would give first priority to establishing programs in epistemology. How can we develop better intercultural understanding if we can’t agree on what is in front of our eyes?

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