Monday, December 16, 2013

Georgetown University’s One-Way Street of Christian-Muslim Understanding

The "more strongly you are committed to your faith," emerging church leader Brian McLaren stated at Georgetown University on November 21, 2013, the "more tolerant and compassionate you are."  McLaren's equivalency among all faiths fit perfectly into the conference "Muslim-Christian Relations in the 21st Century:  Challenges & Opportunities," a day-long, one-sided presentation of Islam as a pacific faith unjustly maligned by Christians and others.

Presented by Georgetown's Prince Alwaleed bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding (ACMCU) on the occasion of its 20th anniversary, the conference has already produced considerable controversy.  The keynote address by popular British religion writer Karen Armstrong, for example, unconvincingly argued that Al Qaeda's September 11, 2001, attacks resulted from Muslim grievances inflicted by the West in general and the British Empire in particular.  Outside of the conference's estimated 100 attendees at Georgetown's Copley Hall, Armstrong's arguments have met with universal revulsion, if comments upon my previously published analysis are any indication (see here and here, for example).

A panel moderated by Islam scholar Natana J. DeLong-Bas, meanwhile, preceded Armstrong.  As a moderator, DeLong-Bas did not have much too say, which was probably just as well, as research has revealed her to the unsuspecting at the conference and elsewhere as an Islamism apologist and 9/11 truther.  Among other things, she has doubted the role of Osama bin Laden in 9/11 and has praised the "democracy" efforts of Hamas.

Armstrong and DeLong-Bas were perhaps predictable given the tone set at the conference's morning introduction by ACMCU's director, the frequent Islamism apologist and internationally renowned Islam scholar John Esposito.  Along with the "Arab Spring" becoming "potentially the Arab Winter" and "Sunni-Shia sectarianism," Armstrong's fellow United Nations Alliance of Civilizations (UNAOC) High Level Group member Esposito identified the "rise of Islamophobia" as a global issue facing Islam.  McLaren likewise during the conference's final panel spoke of Islam substituting for Communism after the Cold War's end had for many Americans "take[n] away their enemy" and identity "crutch."

Participants on "The Arab Uprisings, Islamic Movements & the Future of Democracy" panel, meanwhile, seemed mystified by any threat perception within Islam.  Emad Shahin, for example, judged concerns about Islam's compatibility with democracy a "useless question."  According to Shahin, anyone, not just the Muslim Brotherhood (MB), could have "made mistakes" ruling Egypt following the downfall of its dictator Hosni Mubarak.  Opponents of deposed Egyptian President Muhammad Morsi from the MB "should have respected the process" and the Arab Spring's "people power."

Shahin's fellow panelist, the late addition Radwan Masmoudi from the Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy (CSID), also decried the "myth that Islam and democracy are not compatible."  As CSID's president, Masmoudi claimed that his organization had produced hundreds of papers demonstrating that Islamic faith and freedom could coexist, a claim Masmoudi saw borne out in the Arab Spring.  "We are going to succeed" with an Islam-democracy combination, Masmoudi confidently predicted.

Like Shahin, Masmoudi considered it "not fair" to judge Egypt's MB rule a failure in light of the "long process to build democracy" cut short after fewer than two years.  While Masmoudi assessed post-Saddam Hussein Iraq as a "mess," he nonetheless considered Middle East democracy promotion under George W. Bush to have been "great."  "Foreign intervention" in Tunisia and Egypt, meanwhile, from Western countries "afraid of democracy" had repeated America's historic "mistake" of supporting Middle East dictators, "one of the main reasons for extremism."  By contrast, "good relations with the Arab and Muslim world demands democracy."

Fears of countries like Egypt emulating Iran's theocratic dictatorship received little consideration from Masmoudi.  United States Secretary of State John Kerry's determination that Egypt's "Muslim Brotherhood stole democracy" baffled Masmoudi.  He correspondingly criticized a supposed American "green light" for the Egyptian military's July 2013 ouster of Morsi, even though most evidence indicates that President Barak Obama opposed Morsi's removal.

Rather than question any "faith in the people" in majority-Muslim societies, Masmoudi saw recurring elections as the means of controlling any Muslim political malfeasance.  Thereby Masmoudi discussed "Islamism" as a "most misunderstood word," for, according to him, variants of Islamism existed, not all of which were malignant.  As a practical matter, Masmoudi considered impossible the political exclusion of Islamists, estimated by him at about 30-40% of Arab Spring country populations.

Contrasting with this positive presentation of Islam, leftist evangelical Richard Cizek offered comments critical of American evangelicals while sharing the stage with Armstrong.  Once the National Association of Evangelicals' (NAE) top staffer as Vice President for Governmental affairs, Cizek left NAE in 2008 after his support for same-sex civil unions as well as climate change theories and the recently elected Obama caused uproar in evangelical circles.  Now heading the New Evangelical Partnership for the Common Good with funding from leftwing atheist billionaire George Soros, Cizek at Copley Hall criticized evangelical "subcultural bubbles."  Here prevailed a "black helicopters" view of the United Nations and complaints about an "alleged intrusion" upon religious freedom by the Obama Administration's contraception mandate.

With respect to evangelical relations with Islam, Cizek had several complaints.  Christian Zionism, for example, supported the "theft of Palestinian land."  Cizek also critically cited a figure according to which 60% of evangelicals rejected the assertion that Western civilization had a significant Islamic heritage.

Cizek also noted his meeting with fellow evangelical James Dobson at the National Cathedral following 9/11.  In contrast to Dobson's understanding of 9/11 as jihadist aggression, Cizek, like Armstrong, seemed to express understanding for Al Qaeda's motives.  Cizek referenced American military personnel stationed on Saudi Arabian soil at the time of 9/11 and an Arab-Israeli conflict having claimed 4 million dead and wounded, according to Cizek.

Yet most estimates of Arab and Jewish casualties since fighting began during Zionist settlement of the British Palestine Mandate are far lower.  One accounting lists 115,000 dead and 102,000 wounded among civilians and soldiers.  In a ranking of conflicts with over 10,000 fatalities since 1950, the Arab-Israeli conflict occupies 49th place.  Cizek also did not explain why the defensive deployment of American forces to Saudi Arabia is any less justified than similar American deployments around the world.

Appearing with Masmoudi and Shahin, Georgetown professor Yvonne Haddad offered the one indication during the conference that all was not well with Islam.  Haddad described a "panic" among the Middle East's Christians as a "vanishing minority" who resented Muslim-majority domination expressed in terms for non-Muslim monotheists like "dhimmis."  In Syria there were "targeted killing of Christians," something Haddad ascribed to rebel anger at Christian unwillingness to fight the Bashar Assad regime and not general Islamist persecution of non-Muslims.  "Bush's Spring" overthrowing Saddam Hussein in Iraq had also unleashed Islamist furies and Christian flight.

Yet Haddad's assessments of Arab Christians' friends and foes were surprising.  Discussing transient Western interventions in the Middle East going back to the Crusades that had always ultimately weakened Christian communities there, Haddad asserted that Arab Christians did not want outside rescuers.  Denominational disputes with Western evangelists had also antagonized Arab Christians in the past.

Israel is also no friend of Christians in Haddad's view.  One evangelical group's online map of Christian persecution in the Middle East received her criticism for omitting Israel.  Yet Israel is for Haddad a country that places Arab Christians and Muslims in "concentration camps," an increasingly popular slander of Israel's occupation of Palestinian territories.  Christian Arab population statistics tell a different story, however, as indicated by me in a question to Haddad.  In contrast to the Christian exodus from the Middle East noted by her, Christians in Israel have grown in number from 34,000 in 1949 to 125,000 in 2011.  Jordanian rule over East Jerusalem from 1949 to 1967, meanwhile, saw the Christians there decline from 25,000 to fewer than 13,000.

Appearing on DeLong-Bas' morning panel, South Africa's ambassador to the United States, Ebrahim Rasool, had called upon his audience "to embrace shared space" in an "exciting world of multiculturalism."  In such a world the existence of a "mosque in Cape Town" reciprocally demanded the allowance of a "church in Saudi Arabia."  This new paradigm also involved a "move away from competitive faith to cooperative faith" amidst a "declining carcass" of believers in an increasingly secularized world.

Interfaith harmony invocations, though, rang hollow at this morally inverted conference.  While Islamism's uniformly aggressive and authoritarian aspects went unexamined, conference panelists attributed prejudice and persecution almost exclusively to Christians and Jews.  Yet concerns about Muslim-majority societies in the Arab Spring and elsewhere undergoing something other than Rasool's described "surge for freedom" are hardly "useless," pace Shahin.  Nor does religious devotion always have a direct relationship with human decency, as Esposito's reference to Sunni-Shia sectarianism indicates contrary to McLaren's assertion.

Peace among peoples can only result from considered respect for principles such as human equality, something requiring rigorous intellectual inquiry and not the ACMCU's Islamophile illusions.  Rasool's claim, for example, that Muslims have "no monopoly" upon a "fundamentalist-extremist mindset" given Israeli "fundamentalism" and Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher's "economic fundamentalism" deserves closer scrutiny.  Rasool's assertion with respect to Jews in the Third Reich and 1948 Israeli War for Independence Palestinian refugees that "we all carry the burdens of victimhood" is also suspect.  Such examination necessary for Christian-Muslim or any other understanding, however, is unlikely ever to occur at Georgetown's ACMCU.


Strong Genetic Influence on a UK Nationwide Test of Educational Achievement at the End of Compulsory Education at Age 16

By N.G. Shakeshaft et al.


We have previously shown that individual differences in educational achievement are highly heritable in the early and middle school years in the UK. The objective of the present study was to investigate whether similarly high heritability is found at the end of compulsory education (age 16) for the UK-wide examination, called the General Certificate of Secondary Education (GCSE). In a national twin sample of 11,117 16-year-olds, heritability was substantial for overall GCSE performance for compulsory core subjects (58%) as well as for each of them individually: English (52%), mathematics (55%) and science (58%). In contrast, the overall effects of shared environment, which includes all family and school influences shared by members of twin pairs growing up in the same family and attending the same school, accounts for about 36% of the variance of mean GCSE scores. The significance of these findings is that individual differences in educational achievement at the end of compulsory education are not primarily an index of the quality of teachers or schools: much more of the variance of GCSE scores can be attributed to genetics than to school or family environment. We suggest a model of education that recognizes the important role of genetics. Rather than a passive model of schooling as instruction (instruere, ‘to build in’), we propose an active model of education (educare, ‘to bring out’) in which children create their own educational experiences in part on the basis of their genetic propensities, which supports the trend towards personalized learning.


The British people should be free to choose

This belief that the state is the sole purveyor of social goodness is Marxist claptrap

We are going to have to make the argument again – and again and again. No matter how many times we appear to have won the day, the tireless lobbies whose own career interests, or ideological fervour, or political power are under threat simply wear us down.So here we go: politicians are not superior beings, okay? They are not more morally righteous, or in possession of better judgement, than the majority of the electorate, right? That is something on which we are likely to agree. In fact, it is something with which roughly 99 per cent of the population would probably agree.

So why are so many of us apparently prepared to accept that a politician’s decision about how our money should be spent, or our schools should be run, or our hospitals should be administered is inherently virtuous? Whereas, decisions about those things made by private individuals – whether as providers or consumers – are automatically wicked.

The whole ridiculous thing cropped up again last week when Liz Truss was forced to defend the idea of “free schools”. What an absurd thing to have to defend: in a free country, what should schools be other than “free”? Un-free? No, the opposite of “free” in this case is “government-owned and run” which is the equivalent in the perverse terms of the Left, and their special-interest front groups, to “without taint”. That is, the taint of individual choice, personal initiative, and self-determination – all of which are deeply sinister because some people are better at them than others. Therefore they are socially divisive and lead to inequality.

In other words, the very fact of some parents having the desire and determination to create a school which they believe will suit their children better than the state-operated ones, constitutes a form of political injustice because some other parents do not have the desire and the determination to do the same. Put like that, doesn’t it sound stupid? And more than stupid, it sounds totalitarian: you have no right to be more conscientious and ambitious for your children than anyone else because that, in itself, is a kind of privilege.

Believe it or not there are people who actually say this: if all parents are not similarly equipped with the capacity and the fortitude to invent, or even actively to seek out, a school they believe will suit their offspring, then no parents should be permitted to do so. (The same argument is applied to parental choice as to the more radical “free schools” concept: the freedom to choose is pernicious because only some parents will make good use of it.)

But The Argument which must be repeated ad infinitum is not just about parents and schools. It is about the larger question of government power and the public services. How on earth has it come to pass that “choice” and “diversity” are such dangerous ideas that political parties are afraid to be associated with them? (Or, at least, treat them like live grenades?) Now that most British consumers can shop with demonic cleverness – comparing the online prices of electronic goods and holidays with ferocious expertise – how can the denial of choice and variety in the most important areas of all, education and health, still be a sacred principle, never to be defiled by the unpredictable whims of those on the receiving end? And even more bizarrely, why does a nation which bows to no other in its contempt for politicians and bureaucrats seem to accept that their edicts on the content of schooling and the practice of medicine must be preferred even to those of the professionals who practise them?

Now this brings us to an interesting point. The most influential enemies of free schools and of academies (which are, in the end, likely to be a more important phenomenon in the process of breaking the government monopoly on education) are the teaching unions. Their campaigning and concerted resistance has consistently forced every reform of state education that favours parental choice onto the back foot. (See earlier reference to Liz Truss’s travails over the past week.) Yet, it is their case that teachers should have the right to decide how to teach. So what if we were to get on to the front foot and agree?

Fine, we might say, you can choose how (and even what) you want to teach in your particular school, if parents can choose whether or not to accept what you are offering. If teachers must be able to exercise their own judgment, why shouldn’t parents? The teaching lobby would then presumably be forced to say explicitly that they always know what is best for all children – which is something they only hint at now with their condemnations of “pushy parents”. (Some politicians on the Right have actually taken to joining in that condemnation – which is absolutely shameful.)

If the dogmatic teachers’ spokesmen were not prepared to consider this trade-off, wouldn’t it weaken their public position? After all, they must assume that there is a large group of parents who would opt for the permissive, progressive, anti-testing philosophy that they espouse. If not, does that mean they know better than everybody else?

Maybe we have been repeating the old arguments for too long. Instead of reiterating the obvious truths – that diversity of provision raises standards, protects freedom and encourages personal responsibility through the power of choice – perhaps we should go on the offensive.

Instead of talking encouragingly about “independent” providers – a word which is associated in the context of education with the private sector and can thus be caricatured as privatisation – perhaps we should make a more aggressive case against allowing schools to remain in the evil grip of politicians. (This might seem an odd thing for a politician to say but Michael Gove has shown himself to be quite unafraid of uttering uncomfortable truths.) When the enemies of reform claim that they want to improve all schools at exactly the same pace and in exactly the same way, rather than encouraging difference (or “inequality”), we might say with unblinking ferocity that enforced uniformity is authoritarian, conformist and destructive of achievement.

It may be time for an unflinching, unapologetic stand: why shouldn’t governments provide the funding for public services without owning and administering them? What is this belief that the state is the sole purveyor of social goodness but a piece of old-fashioned Marxist claptrap? Of course, parents, communities and organisations should be allowed to set up schools. The proper role for government is to monitor their performance: to examine their results and to make that information publicly available.

The head of Ofsted, Sir Michael Wilshaw, is certainly on the right track here with his call for a return to national testing. If there are enough teachers and parents who believe that test performance is unimportant, they can set up their own schools too. Good luck to them.


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