Organized religion has often opposed innovation – modernity. A few examples: As the European world went from the absolutism of a revealed Christian “truth” to scientific challenges, the Catholic Church rejected scientific innovation.
Take, as an example, Galileo’s “discovery” that the earth rotates around the sun, which triggered an investigation by the Roman Inquisition exactly four centuries ago.
Or, closer to home, why did the first Lubavitcher Rebbe, Shneur Zalman of Liadi, support Czar Alexander in face of the Napoleonic invasion of Russia two hundred years ago. Why did the rabbi fear Napoleon? Well, the French ideal of human equality would tumble the ghetto walls, and expose the Jews to modern life, with all its promising blandishments.
I could add further examples from rabbinic thought that has forbidden innovation, up to preventing many of today’s haredi schools from teaching English or mathematics, never mind physics or Darwin.
Let’s say then we see that organized religion has impeded and impedes “progress.” Let’s see how it can speed it. Two examples: the Mishnaic command that every Jewish boy must learn to read, something which did not reach the boys of England and Wales until the 1870, almost two millennia later. The spread of Protestantism increased literacy and independence of thought, and then helped produce capitalism and a middle class which sought democracy.
Having bowed to political correctness by not singling out Islam as a retrogressive force, we can continue to that religion. The experts such as the great Bernard Lewis have written learned analyses on “what went wrong” with Islam. As a Middle Easterner for over 60 years, and an observer and student of social and political life, I believe there was one central factor: literacy, or rather illiteracy, Though manuscripts were available, only the advent of printing opened the gates to more and more literate people.
A brief historical reminder: Movable type printing was invented by the Chinese about a thousand years ago, and by the Germans less than five hundred years later. By 1500 CE books were available throughout Europe. First and foremost was of course the Christian Bible. In short order Hebrew presses were created to serve the small but literate Jewish communities.
Within a few decades numerous classics: The Tanakh/Jewish Bible, commentators and Talmud were readily available to the already literate Jewish male scholar or student. In four decades some 180 Hebrew texts were printed. Books for women were written and printed by 1590, in what was known as Ivri-Taitsh (Hebrew-German, “taitsh” came to have two meanings – to translate in general and into Yiddish in particular.) There was one major area in which printing in the vernacular was actually forbidden.
The Ottoman Empire, stretching at one time from the gates of Vienna and the Polish border all the way to Persia and from the Russian lands to Yemen, forbade printing in Arabic script. This script was then used for Turkish, and is still used for Arabic and Persian. Most historians believe this was due to an Islamic prohibition on printing the name of Allah. Others claim that it was the opposition of scribes who would lose lucrative trade. Thus while the Ottomans permitted Jewish presses, and Salonika became a major center for Hebrew and Ladino books, as did Istanbul and Izmir, the first book in Arabic script was printed only in 1727.
Three centuries after Western Europe! And, experts say that not until the mid-1800s did publishing in Arabic really take off, so make that four centuries.
Meanwhile in Western Europe, the Renaissance flowered, the rise of Lutheranism led to the Counter-Reformation in Catholicism. Established “truths” were challenged and often shattered by scientific advances. The Encyclopédistes led the Enlightenment. The American example and the obtuse class structure of the French monarchy triggered the French Revolution. Napoleon imposed its ideas on Europe from Spain into the Slavic lands.
In the Jewish world, the clash between tradition and modernity, between the Haskala and Halacha led to the creation of the Reform movement, of the historical school which became Conservative Judaism, and the birth of modern Orthodoxy and ultra-Orthodoxy in a defensive reaction.
Clearly the lack of literacy and printing throughout the Ottoman Muslim world meant that there was no Enlightenment, and no need to change Islam. On the contrary, under the threat of the West, as Western military advisers, conquest and later movies and television invaded Islamic space, most Islamic leaders entrenched themselves even further behind strict and puritanical traditionalism. Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, trying to introduce secularism and modernize Turkey almost a hundred years ago, is being reversed today by the Islamist Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
Saudi Arabia, using Western oil money, sowed the seeds of its own strict Salafism across Europe and into the New World, financing the building of mosques in which hatred of Western values often leads to jihadist violence. Iran under its Shi’ite leadership spread its own form of reactionary religion and anti-Western hatred. The Arab Spring became an Arab Winter, as retrogressive forces such as Islamic State, al-Qaida and their various splinters fight to conquer Arab lands and eventually to crush the West. The casualties are Arab-Arab and Muslim-Muslim in the hundreds of thousands.
What Saudi Arabia sowed in joy, it is reaping in tears, and so also Kuwait and other “innocent” exporters of extremism. Their own rulers are now under threat.
There is never just one cause for historical changes.
The cynical exploitation by Western imperialism across the centuries, as well as the race for access to oil, created both the desire to compete and the desire to emulate. There are many other factors: rote learning, choking of independent thought, the repression of women, the blaming of others, especially the Jews and Israel, for Islamic lack of initiative – to name just a few.
These have all played their part in the stalling of innovation and scientific progress.
To be sure, many Arab countries and Iran have made great educational progress and important scientific strides; perhaps first and foremost the Palestinians, Jordan, Egypt and the Gulf states. Yet the fear of “Western values” hangs across Islam, and the threat of force against them is brandished and often actuated.
Now, I am not crazy about all Western values. I believe that the corruption created by both the concentration of wealth and the idolatrous pursuit of it can only lead to an eventual catastrophe. I am not wild about the hypocrisy of the Western Left, enjoying near-sexual titillation when showing “Look, how good I am,” while around the corner they ignore their own sins and remain silent as Syrians murder Syrians, and Muslims murder Christians. I am afraid of the Western Right which buys politicians, often within the scope of legality, and its neo-fascism threatens human rights and liberties in Europe. I am afraid of Western hypocrisy as evidenced by the countries represented in the Je Suis Charlie march.
But I cannot ignore, as a Middle Easterner, the danger of a triumphalist Islam.
That is danger number one.
Come on, Muslims, catch up, and stop blaming everyone else. Or, maybe just blame the sultan of Turkey; not today’s wannabe, but Sultan Bayezid II in 1483.Avraham Avi-hai is an author and commentator who has filled many major roles in Israel government and public bodies, as well as in academia. His novel, A Tale of Two Avrahams, is available in bookstores, and from Gefen Publishing and Amazon.