Statements made last week by two high officials in the government, one civilian and one military, each give cause for concern. Their statements not only are alarming in themselves, but if we connect the dots, that is, the dots that connect those two statements, natural concern should become anxiety, and anxiety become alarm, about the strategy this Administration has adopted in dealing with the threat posed by those who subscribe to the ideology of Islam. That alarm is prompted by a most provincial and ill-prepared citizen of the world (who, however, possesses the kind of degrees that in present-day America apparently impress so much, and mean so little), who offers in the money-and-men-and-time-consuming “war on terrorism,” which has now been expanded to include nation-building, or at least nation-improving, for such places as Iraq and Afghanistan, a theory that is unproven and that, on its face, is absurd.
In this piece I am only going to deal with the first statement, and in a subsequent piece I will discuss the second statement. Then, though those who made these statements have both provided enough rope to hang themselves, it’s not rope but string we need, and I need enough – or at least that’s my string theory — to make a double knot, so that by the time we are done neither one will get loose from the box, or escape hanging.
The first remark in question was made by Charles Bolden, a former general who for reasons that are still unclear was appointed by the Obama Administration to be the head of NASA, though his knowledge of or interest in space exploration and the relevant science is unclear. Bolden was being interviewed by Al-Jazeera, and he was forthright about his mission. He said that once he became the NASA administrator, Obama gave him three main tasks:
“When I became the NASA administrator — or before I became the NASA administrator — he charged me with three things. One was he wanted me to help re-inspire children to want to get into science and math, he wanted me to expand our international relationships, and third, and perhaps foremost, he wanted me to find a way to reach out to the Muslim world and engage much more with dominantly Muslim nations to help them feel good about their historic contribution to science … and math and engineering.”
No one paid attention to this statement when it was broadcast on Al-Jazeera. No one thought to register or relay astonishment – it was, after all, on Al Jazeera, and Al Jazeera has such a tiny audience in the U.S. Who cares what its Arab and Muslim audience hears? That may explain the silence. Or was it perhaps that those who noticed didn’t want others to notice, for fear of what political damage it might do to Obama?
Bolden’s remark is astonishing. His own complacent cluelessness is bad, but what he fails to understand about those three tasks, and especially about the last of them, is hardly as bad as the fact that those from on high told him that these were tasks fitting and proper for the head administrator of NASA. Are they? Is it really the task of the head of NASA to encourage children? “Re-inspire” implies that they once were inspired, but somehow lost that inspiration. Might it be because once those who naively think that there is nothing to it find out that there is a great deal they will have to learn, and cease to be “inspired” to continue in math and science because of its rigor, a rigor that does not deter students who are not coddled or suffering from all kinds of social engineering and affirmative action and Leaving No Child Behind that taken together constitute a war on excellence? This mistake is not made in societies more intelligently ruthless and yes, “elitist.” (That word is not to be shunned but embraced, for without a properly-educated intellectual elite implacably maintaining educational standards, if you take away degree, untune that string, just hark what discord follows, and cultural desarroi). Students of mathematics and science in an older and wiser America, or in Russia, China, India today, are not confused in their classrooms by the dumbing-down and dilution of offerings, nor do their official scientific bodies find themselves spending time on “inspiring” or “re-inspiring” students. The students, through reading, through parents, through their own talents that somehow emerge, are noticed, and then nurtured not by feelgood self-esteem crapola, but by an examination system that implacably winnows wheat from chaff, and does not tell the chaff it really is the wheat, or perhaps even better.
“Re-inspiring” students – the word presumably means that we are all born trailing clouds of glory, and then somehow fall away, lose that native enthusiasm that we once all possessed for studying Minkowski space and fractals and aeronautical engineering and tensor calculus and — you name it. Every Man Is, If Not A Dirac, At Least A Von Karman, if only, only, properly “re-inspired.” And who better to “re-inspire,” who with more time on his hands to do the “re-inspiring,” than Charles Bolden, the head administrator of NASA? Nor need we stop to hold up for examination and mild ridicule the business about Bolden’s second task, the one about having him “expand our international relationships,” as if the American government were not Laocoon-like tied in the coils of those entangling foreign (“international” as we now say, as for example those who were once “foreign students” have become “international students”) alliances and more often misalliances. Take, for example, that respect for the non-existent, but nonetheless quite dangerous construct – precisely because it does not exist – the “international community.”) We can hardly miss these coils, everywhere we slip and slide along the corridors of power in the self-hobbling West.
No, it’s the third of these tasks, these un-labors of Hercules, that has raised eyebrows and hackles zeugmatically all over the Western world. Here it is again:
“third, and perhaps foremost, he wanted me to find a way to reach out to the Muslim world and engage much more with dominantly Muslim nations to help them feel good about their historic contribution to science … and math and engineering.”
Let’s stop and take that in. Yes, I know, you’ve already done that. You’ve been indignant already. You don’t have to do it again. Oh yes you do. You have to look again. You have to keep your indignation, your fury, and your fear, and you have to keep having the reasons for this reaction brought to your attention, and you then must bring it to the attention of others, lest you and they allow yourselves to forget what a mess this country and above all its educational system is in, and what tremendous misallocation of resources is involved in that mess.
We live in the Age of Ekwilism in this country, in an Age of Levelling that in matters of intellect, and the transmission of knowledge, rivals – though prompted by different reasons – what the Soviet or Chinese Communists at their most malevolent sometimes managed to implement.
And part of the Ekwilism of the Age is the growth of Self-Esteem studies. The Self-Esteem in question does not come from any effort or perceived merit on the part of those who are encouraged simply to believe in their natural wonderfulness. They are discouraged from believing that they will have to work like dogs, as do the Chinese and Indian students in their best schools of math and science, or as French students do since France has remained sure of itself, in its system of competitive examinations, and as yet unwilling to dilute that system, as some have urged. They are not told that they have to work hard in order to achieve anything. No, Everyman A King, said Huey Long, and the fashionable version today is Everyman A Professor, or at least Every Student A Keen Intellect, and anyone who would touch a hair on the head of a fellow man’s Self-Esteem deserves…well, if not death, at least let’s make sure he doesn’t find a teaching job, lest he upset some of the students in suggesting that both native ability and industry matter, and will out.
But if the Self-Esteem business always means trouble – the same kind of trouble you sense is coming from someone capable of using the word “wholistic” in an article or a speech – still worse is the encouragement of Self-Esteem on the part of a particular group. And worst of all, given the mighty ideological contest, one that has gigantic consequences for the survival and well-being of the art, science, and political freedoms achieved in the Western world, is the administrative head of NASA encouraging Self-Esteem not by all peoples, but especially by Muslims.
But what is the likely effect of this new NASA mission, and what does its existence tell us about the Obama Administration’s grasp of the meaning, and menace, of Islam?
And even before we attempt to answer that, what should others, that is, non-Muslims living around the world, start to think when they find out that the mighty and all-powerful President of the fabled United States, Barack Obama, has told the administrative head of NASA that perhaps his most important task will be “to find a way to reach out to the Muslim world and engage much more with dominantly Muslim nations to help them feel good about their historic contribution to science … and math and engineering”?
Imagine you are a Hindu, living in India, or perhaps in Pakistan or Bangladesh. Will this news fill you with delight, or anguish? What if you are a Christian black African, living in, say, the southern Sudan, and you are aware that over the past 40 years Muslim Arabs have killed, or created the conditions (mass starvation, diseases untreated and unchecked in refugee camps) for the mass deaths of black Africans because they were not Arabs or Muslims? Or suppose you were a Buddhist living in southern Thailand, subject to the murderous Jihad that, almost entirely unreported in the West, steadily goes on? Would you be heartened by this news? Would it fill you with hope that someone – the President of the United States, no less – was going to modify Muslim violence and aggression by making sure that Muslims felt good about themselves, not least by being reminded of all the wonderful contributions of Muslims to math, science, and so on?
And still worse, what if you were a Hindu in Pakistan, or Bangladesh, wondering whether you should continue to hold onto your own Hinduism or give in, succumb to the blandishments and the threats, cease to hold out, and – like many before you–convert to Islam? You might consider this even though you did not believe in Islam, even though you disliked or even detested what it did to the minds of men, even though you were convinced it would in the end stunt the mental and moral growth of your children. You might convert or consider conversion despairingly, because if even if the President of the United States, Barack Hussein Obama, thinks this way, perhaps there is no use resisting. And now you read his name and endow it with new and worrisome meaning, joining the ranks of others who have made too much of it as they accuse Obama of being a “secret Muslim.” This accusation, though false, begins to acquire credence given the many acts by Obama that, in my view, are not those of a “secret Muslim” but of an arrogant provincial who thinks he “knows” about Islam and who, as a provincial ill-prepared to deal with foreign and military policy, is unduly deferential to foolish advisers who, themselves ignorant of Islam, continue to pursue policies, dressed up as “reaching out to the Muslim world,” that are in fact simply appeasement, as the clear-minded can see.
And if you are a black African living in sub-Saharan Africa, a Christian in southern Nigeria, say, and you have endured persecution and murder at the hands of Muslims, before, during, and after the Biafra War of 1967-69, would you be heartened or disheartened by the glad tidings brought to you by Charles Bolden? Might you not wonder where, oh where, you will be able to find in the Western world, which abandoned Biafra once, those who understand what Islam means for all non-Muslims, what it has meant for so many black African Christians, from Nigeria in the West to Sudan in the East? Might you too be tempted to give up, to convert to Islam yourself, if only because at this point, you suspect that the way to attract American aid is to be a Muslim country, or a Muslim tribe, or a Muslim individual, and then you will be taken care of, while those who are Christians cannot count on aid, or on protection against Muslims?
Isn’t this the likely effect of the policy of Reaching Out To Muslims, in the manner described by Charles Bolden?
Note, by the way, that Muslims do not appear anywhere in the world to suffer from a great lack of self-esteem. Read the Muslim and Arab press. Watch the Muslim and Arab television. Again and again they speak of Muslim greatness and Infidel weakness. Again and again they keep telling us about the wonders of the Arabs and Muslims. How many times, in Iraq, did American soldiers hear that “all of civilization began here”? How often, all over the Muslim and especially the Muslim Arab world, do we hear exaggerated claims made, such as “we Arab Muslims are responsible for the Renaissance” (Tariq Ramadan’ likes to make this claim) and “we Muslims invented science” or “we Muslims made modern medicine possible” and on and on und so weiter.
Muslims are inculcated with the belief – does Barack Obama not know this? – that the real division of humanity, the only division that counts, is that between Muslim and non-Muslim, Muslim and Infidel. The “ungrateful” Kuffar is ungrateful because he refused to accept Islam, even though born as a Muslim, just like everyone since time began (even before Muhammad). He did not receive, refused to receive, received incorrectly, the message of Islam. And for that he deserves permanent ill-treatment, that is, the regime, or status, of dhimmi – which is the only alternative to death or immediate conversion, and is a status available, in strict terms, only to Christians and Jews as People of the Book (ahl al-kitab), though in order to preserve the Jizyah-base, the Muslim masters found ways to treat as dhimmis both Zoroastrians in Persia, and – after tens of millions of murders of Hindus – Hindus in India. After all, you don’t want to kill or convert everyone. Who would be left to pay the Jizyah, on which the Muslim rulers and state depended?
Muslim newspapers, radio, television, Internet sites, are not full of stories that demonstrate that a lack of self-esteem is worrying Muslims. It is true that they are keenly aware of their deficiencies in one area, and would like to receive instruction from the West in that area: that is, in the area of military technology. It is about that that Mahathir Mohamed spoke to a rapt crowd, delegates at a meting of the O.I.C., some years ago. Zakir Naik, the Muslim proselytizer based in India, has also said that “we Muslims are willing to learn about military technology” from the West. No interest in, and certainly no worry about, the failures or absence of Muslim contributions to basic science. No, what Muslims want are the planes and the missiles and the weapons of mass destruction to be delivered with those planes and those missiles; they don’t want to know the reasons for the failure of the Muslim world, for more than a millennium, to contribute to science.
But should we participate in this farce? Should we make Muslims feel good about themselves when so many of the 1.2 billion Muslims are constantly told – in the Qur’an, hadith, and Sira – that they are the “best of peoples,” and that as the “best of peoples” they have a right and even a sacred duty to engage in the struggle, or Jihad, to remove all obstacles to the spread, and then the dominance, of Islam? Is not Obama, in telling Bolden “to find a way to reach out to the Muslim world and engage much more with dominantly Muslim nations to help them feel good about their historic contribution to science … and math and engineering” not sending coals to Newcastle, something like trying to add to the Self-Esteem of some World Conqueror like Jeffrey Sachs or others – Tom Friedman comes to mind — of that comical ilk? Isn’t trying to further encourage Muslims in their misreading of their own history and their exaggerated narrative about supposed “Muslim” contributions to this and to that, exactly what we do not need, what we need less of? Wafa Sultan, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, and Ibn Warraq do not think we should pull our punches in talking about, or to, the world’s Muslims. They think they are entirely too confident, too triumphalist, and tell us that such Muslim arrogance and triumphalism is dangerous for us.
Besides, there is one other thing that needs to be considered. And that one thing is the truth. I don’t suppose that Obama, during his twenty years as a political organizer, or in his busy life as a Senator for two years, and then as candidate and then as President, has read widely in the history of science, mathematics, and technology, but had he done so, and had he also read such historians of science as Toby Huff, he would have had a better sense of the very tiny contribution of Muslims to these fields. He would have discovered that a great many of those who used Arabic were not Muslims at all, but Jews and Christians; he would have discovered that among the few dozen names – always the same few dozen – that are listed (Avicenna, Averroes, Rhazes, etc.) – by those claiming great things for High Islamic Civilization, some were dangerously freethinking, practically non-Muslims (as the greatest man of science, Rhazes), while others had been raised within a milieu that was only a generation or two removed from non-Muslim culture. (Though not a scientist, the celebrated Ottoman architect Sinan, it turns out, was an Armenian who converted to Islam, which gave him the chance to exercise his art.) Is not aiding their own inability to see things truthfully doing exactly what Muslims do not need?
Obama, one has the suspicion, may be applying to Muslims views on Self-Esteem that have grown out of domestic views that have been applied closer to home. But does Obama think that the whole Jesse-Jackson “I AM SOMEBODY” mantra, and all that goes with it, or what he has observed of the followers of Farrakhan, have been a success? Does he think such things are a valid substitute for, or even a useful supplement to, achievement that is based on ability rightly directed, and hard work? Isn’t Obama capable of casting a beady eye on such things, and seeing them correctly, as merely one more derisory, meretricious, and even cruel scheme that, in the end, tends only to line the pockets of those mountebanks who batten on the government and foundation aid, or on the forced tithing of followers, of these new incarnations of Marcus Garvey and Father Divine?
Wouldn’t it make more sense to work to make Muslims more aware of the real reasons for the brief flourishing, and then the sudden disappearance, of their “contributions” to mathematics and science? This would take into account the rapid diminishment in the presence, and influence, and power, of the non-Muslim communities that continued to exist for the first few centuries after the Arab conquest. And wouldn’t it make more sense to point out — not to Muslims, but to “talk amongst ourselves” so that Muslims will overhear us, and have to come to mental terms with what they overhear – that Islam is based purely on authority, that it does not admit of questioning of doctrine, but encourages the habit of mental submission and discourages, and punishes severely, the practice of free and skeptical inquiry, and it is exactly that practice of free and skeptical inquiry that makes the enterprise of science possible?
That’s the way to proceed.
This is not merely different from what Obama, according to Charles Bolden, asked Charles Bolden to do. It goes completely in the other direction. 180 degrees. That’s a bit of math. That’s a bit of science. That business of 180 degrees is useful, I’m told, in engineering. Well then, the use of such a phrase has helped me with my shaky self-esteem.
So now, if you’ll briefly excuse me, as I’m plumb tuckered out, I’m going to set a spell. Oh where? Right here, in my bedsitter space. Or my De Sitter space. Or my Minkowski space. And then, after a short break, and an hour spent with Courant’s “What Is Mathematics,” I’ll be back shortly with Part II of this essay. After all, the Obama policy on Islam isn’t, alas, going anywhere. It’s still right there.