BBC overnight had an informative discussion with two Muslim activists, from Canada and Britain, who work on quelling violence in the Muslim world. The Canadian (sorry, I don't have the names) mentioned how Pakistanis wear their religion on their sleeve; while Indonesians, while devout, are much more inclined to regard faith as a personal affair. I can relate, since there's a similar contrast between the U.S. and Canada, where faith and invocations of the Almighty, whoever you conceive him, her or it to be, are not on. Again, a private affair.
We heard a great deal in this hour-long broadcast about deprivation, and the Canadian was especially exercised about counter-productive U.S. interference in Pakistan. It was at about this point that the presenter, who was a kindred spirit throughout, inquired about the rumoured lack of literacy and numeracy teaching in the madrasahs. "Oh yes, that's true, they've made a complete hash of education in Pakistan," the Canadian quickly said. "They don't have the resources." He then launched into a long dissertation on how, with more resources, the teachers and their students could more ably spread the message of peace throughout that tortured country, where civil disorder has been a way of life since Pakistan's creation after breaking away from India. Pakistan was, after all, founded as an Islamic - which is to say, religious and not secular - society. Like Israel, at roughly the same time, and whose existence has also been a chronically troubled one.
The topic of literacy and numeracy was left hanging; none of the three commentators returned to it. I thought, hold on, aren't these the same societies, notably in the Middle East, whose animus toward the West is fueled largely by resentment at the West's comparative success? Its relative power and accomplishments, along with, of course, a lingering (and largely valid) anger with former colonialists?
But what are they doing about it? I'm not a scholar of Islam or other religions that predominate in developing-world nations. But if your population cannot read and write, and is engaged constantly in tribal, religious and inter-nation warfare (Pakistan vs. India over the Kashmir, for instance), where does a Linus Pauling or Stephen Hawking or Bill Gates find intellectual sustenance in that kind of society? A society in which the main business of life is to get around without being shot at, and one's knowledge of the world is in large degree limited to passages from the Koran?
If I'd been required to get by on Bible stories - which are fables, of course - without having also learned about the solar system, the laws of gravity, geometry, the principals of wind and string instruments, and how to write a weekly one-page composition in Grade 2, and all the while be worried about whether I was going to make it home from school safely...
We are taught to respect other societies. And I believe that to be fundamental to a much more peaceful 21st century than the last. At the same time, it's awfully difficult to imagine significant social progress ever in communities that wilfully shut themselves off from the basics of knowledge, the accumulated discoveries - in art, the sciences, governance and commerce - that have brought some nations further along the path to civility and prosperity than others. Societies that have put their guns away, and don't fire off AK-47s into the sky to celebrate weddings.
We will be asked in this new century, as a moral imperative, to help lift developing-world nations from deprivation while being assiduously respectful of local ways of life. Not an easy line to walk. It means accepting a second-class status for women, to start with, and I'd be inclined to get off the train right there save that I have hope that can change. But brutal methods of punishment for minor crimes, working with people who cannot read an instruction manual or perform a simple mathematical calculation, whose worldview is wholly informed by religious teachings and not also by the discoveries of Copernicus, Newton, Alexander Fleming and Madame Curie...
I don't think we're helping if our fear of patronizing leads us to ignore such massive obstacles to progress as the law in some developing nations that an adulterous wife - and only the husband's word on that is needed - can be executed. Or that the elemental building blocks of education as we know it in the West can continue to be dispensed with.
I confess I don't know how you square this circle, of respect for a way of life among others, elements of which one finds deeply repugnant or, in the case of education (or basic law and order) a prohibitive obstacle to progress. I just know it's going to be an intensely frustrating enterprise, if we're really to take up our duty as world citizens to help the least among us if they don't take an interest in algebra or writing a letter home in their own hand.