A voice in the wilderness
In the summer of 1880 the British army was engaged in what has become a defining characteristic of modern empires, the slow process of dashing itself to pieces on the rock that is Afghanistan.
Near the end of the Second Anglo-Afghan War British and Afghan forces faced each other near Kandahar at Maiwand Pass for an engagement that would come to be known as the Battle of Maiwand.
Legend has it that at the height of the battle, as the Afghan forces looked to be wavering, a young woman retrieved the flag of a fallen flag-bearer and sang aloud to the warriors of her nation.
With a drop of my sweetheart’s blood
Shed in defense of the motherland
Will I put a beauty spot on my forehead
Such as would put to shame the rose in the garden!
It would not be long before an English bullet would take her life but her brief display of courage and sacrifice would inspire the Afghan army who would go on to win the day.
The young woman was Malala (a.k.a Malalai) of Maiwand who would become a national folk hero of Afghanistan and to this day the namesake of many public buildings and institutions in her homeland.
In 1998 she would become the namesake of a girl born in the town of Mingora in the Swat Valley in Pakistan. The girl was Malala Yousafzai and in a few short years her courage and dedication to her people would come to rival that of the legend.
The daughter of a renowned educational advocate, At the age of 11 Malala found herself among the population of Pashtun people in the Swat Valley that came under the control of the Taliban.
Areas under the Taliban regime are subject to their strict, fundamentalist interpretation of Sharia Law. The Taliban enforce a long list of prohibitions that include basics such as pork, alcohol and music as well as modern conveniences such as satellite dishes, computers and televisions. Most troubling to young Malala and her family was the ban on employment, sports and education for women.
Malala, under the pseudonym “Gul Makai” or “grief stricken,” began a diary of daily life under Taliban rule which was published on the BBC website and would become the basis of a New York Times documentary. Though her family would become separated and displaced her voice would continue to give voice to the young women living under the repressive Taliban rule.
In 2011 she was runner-up for the International Children’s Peace Prize and would be presented with the first National Peace Award for Youth which would come to be renamed the National Malala Peace Prize in her honor.
None of this escaped the attention of the Tehrik-i-Taliban, the branch of the Taliban operating in the Swat Valley. When the Pakistani army finally managed to dislodge the Tehrik-i-Taliban from the cities and towns and Malala and her family were able to return home they remained targets for their continuing advocacy for education.
On October 9, 2012 a Taliban gunman stopped a school bus and demanded to know if Malala was a passenger. Once she was identified he opened fire wounding two other girls as well as shooting Malala in the head and neck. She remains in critical condition but her story is being heard around the world.
The Taliban’s fundamentalist interpretation of the Qur’an and Sharia are far outside the purview of mainstream Islam and reflect a theology built behind walls that are an attempt to shield itself from a world that has moved beyond the eighteenth century. They portray a self-image of powerful defenders of a faith that in reality fears the words of an adolescent Pashtun girl that wanted nothing more than a decent education. Ehsanullah Ehsan, a spokesman for the Tehrik-i-Taliban explained without hint of shame or regret, “She is a western-minded girl. She always speaks against us. We will target anyone who speaks against the Taliban.”
A faith built on a foundation of the suppression of cognitive thought and dissent by any and all means is a hallmark of Taliban rule but it is by no means exclusive to the mountains of Afghanistan or the Swat Valley, there are similar movements outside the Muslim world.
The Oppression of Pedagogy
Though we have not seen the outright suppression of education within the borders of the United States there is a definite push for reforms that would likely gain nods of approval from Afghan fundamentalist as a step in the right direction.
The Republican Party of Texas, for their part, have taken up the struggle against the very foundation of dissent, critical thinking. The basis of their “jihad” is outlined in the 2012 party platform very explicitly.
“We oppose the teaching of Higher Order Thinking Skills, critical thinking skills and similar programs that are simply a relabeling of Outcome-Based Education which focus on behavior modification and have the purpose of challenging the student’s fixed beliefs and undermining parental authority.”
The ruling industrial class, through their political servants, have decreed that the American system of public education is academically and morally bankrupt and they have in mind a specific cure for the ailment.
Across the nation a growing chorus of voices have decided that the answer to education reform is to essentially abandon the established system of state regulated schools in favor of a combination of private and semi-public charter schools. In reality the only “public” aspect that interest these reformers are the public funds. Stripping them from current school systems and channeling to charter-based education serves two purposes, it weakens the public school foundation so that it can no longer properly function while enriching and strengthening a for-profit entity that can operate outside the realm of government (i.e. democratic) control. While there may be some genuine reformers in the charter school movement, what is clearly evident in the proclamations of the Texas GOP is a desire for a seismic shift in the overall goal of education in this country.
What is taking place is masked as an attempt to repair the obvious deficiencies in public education in the short term but the endgame is a corporate-political coup that is working to totally redefine the goals and aspirations of the system. Neo-Conservative rhetoric in America continues to go to great lengths to portray intellectual discourse as subversive and unpatriotic. Left and liberal in the vernacular of Rush Limbaugh and Fox News is synonymous with perverted and evil. While lip service is given to the term bipartisan it remains an unobtainable goal simply because there is a large percentage of the political right that view all social, political and philosophical discussion as having two sides; theirs, which is right, and any other, which is wrong.
Given this disposition then we understand the danger that critical thinking could pose to the proponents of this conservative logic. To them the status quo must remain hierarchical and authoritarian so that the theocratic and plutocratic forms of government they champion can remain unchallenged by inquiring youthful minds. A cognitive, clear-thinking electorate would be an impediment to the return of a “Gilded Age” where an affluent, educated 1% would rule over a purposely under-educated 99%.
So where does the path toward anti-intellectualism and willful ignorance lead us? A recent speech given by a sitting member of the U.S. Congress gives us some insight;
God’s word is true. I’ve come to understand that. All that stuff I was taught about evolution, embryology, Big Bang theory, all that is lies from the pit of hell. It’s lies to try to keep me and all the folks who are taught that from understanding that they need a savior. There’s a lot of scientific data that I found out as a scientist that actually show this is really a young Earth. I believe that the Earth is about 9,000 years old. I believe it was created in six days as we know them. That’s what the Bible says.
Beyond the sheer, willful ignorance articulated here the most important fact is the identity and occupation of the speaker. These are the words of Georgia Republican Congressman Paul Broun who, ironically, sits on the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee. More amazing yet is that Representative Broun is a physician and a degreed scientist.
Unfortunately Paul Broun’s views are not an aberration but reflect an increasingly mainstream conservative outlook. Among those many conservative voices is congressional candidate Todd Akin who famously believes that a woman’s body can magically prevent pregnancy from an event he describes as “legitimate rape.” Then we have Representative Ralph Hall who believes that humans cannot affect global climate change because “God is in charge of all that.” Or what of Representative Dana Rohrabacher who believes that earlier periods of global warming may have been caused by dinosaur flatulence. All but one of these distinguished political intellectuals currently sit on that same House Science, Space and Technology Committee with Congressman Broun.
Truth and fear
So where does this fervent anti-intellectualism and non-scientific blind faith come from? What motivates the basic similarities between western and non-western fundamentalism that openly opposes the political opinions of adolescent school girls and the politically contingent abilities of young students?
Many years ago I was chastised by an aspiring preacher in a bible study for not holding the Bible in proper reverence. My sin was in not holding the Bible as the final word on the character and nature of the Creator and the creation. My friend held the view that all that we can know of God was contained within the covers of the King James Bible while I professed and continue to profess that the scale and scope of the creator of the universe cannot possibly be condensed into 66 imperfect books written from the limited perspective of the created. This is the same God who, on the subject of church buildings, said “Heaven is my throne and the earth is my footstool so how can you build a house for me?”
This is why Representative Broun, despite his education, holds on with such conviction to the young earth theory first espoused by Archbishop James Ussher in the 17th century. The choice comes down to contorting known scientific reality into pretzel-like theories such as primitive man coexisting with dinosaurs or admitting that the complexities of a universal creator continue to defy our preferred theology.
Religion, political movements and whole states continue to be founded on belief systems that are resistant to critique and challenge. What is professed as strong faith is in reality weak and fearful of knowledge and critical examination. The Creator, in his or her many forms, is constantly put into boxes that make man feel intelligent and superior. When the dimensions of those boxes are disputed by science or theology the small-minded are encouraged not to defend their assumptions of faith but rather to silence the inquisitor. True faith should see the endless possibilities and promises; if the Big Bang Theory is a reality then my faith is not threatened, it only means that the Creator is the origin of that explosion. If life grows and expands through a system of evolutionary metamorphosis then the origins of that process lies in the hands of a creator. Honest faith is strengthened and not weakened by truth.
As mankind’s intellectual and technological abilities grow we are able to better examine the complexities and wonders of creation. This will bring wonder to those whose faith is anchored in the Creator and fear to the likes of Paul Broun and Ehsanullah Ehsan, whose faith is anchored in their own limited perspectives.
I’ve had numerous conversations with my Christian brethren who are uncomfortable with terms such as “Creator” or “Mother Earth,” terms that speak to the indigenous roots of my faith. I always explain that my faith and my God is bigger than the box they try to put them in. My experience has shown critical examination to only validate and not denigrate true faith. My indigenous roots teach me that the Creator is my father and the earth is my mother. Christianity taught me that God formed me from the dust of the earth and breathed into me the breath of life. Science tells me that the elements, metals, and minerals that form my body also form this earth. There is no space between these views, they all three tell the same story.
I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made: your works are wonderful, I know that full well.
— Psalm 139:14, New International Version