The historian William Dalrymple, who lives in New Delhi, discusses Islamic madrasas in the new number of the New York Review of Books.  -- As is so often the case, it turns out that what is said about madrasas in the mainstream media of the West is a mythic fantasy with little relation to reality.  --  To begin with, one of the reasons there are so many madrasas in Pakistan is that there has been a "near collapse of government schooling" there.  --  As for their ideological role, Dalrymple writes that in general "the link between madrasas and international terrorism is far from clear-cut, and new research has been published that has challenged the much-repeated but intellectually shaky theory of madrasas being little more than al-Qaeda training schools."  --  In fact, "a number of recent studies have emphasized that there is a fundamental distinction to be made between madrasa graduates -- who tend to be pious villagers from impoverished economic backgrounds, possessing little technical sophistication -- and the sort of middle-class, politically literate global Salafi jihadis who plan al-Qaeda operations around the world.  Most of these turn out to have secular and technical backgrounds.  Neither bin Laden nor any of the men who carried out the Islamist assaults on America or Britain were trained in a madrasa or was a qualified alim, or cleric."  --  The media like to portray those carrying out attacks as people with a medieval mindset, but "[a]s the French scholar Gilles Kepel puts it, the new breed of global jihadis are not the urban poor of the third world so much as 'the privileged children of an unlikely marriage between Wahhabism and Silicon Valley, which al-Zawahiri visited in the 1990s. They were heirs not only to jihad and the umma but also to the electronic revolution and American-style globalization.'"  --  The recent study entitled Understanding Terror Networks by Mark Sageman, a former CIA official, concludes that "Islamic terrorism, like its Christian and Jewish predecessors, is a largely bourgeois enterprise."  --  Al-Qaeda and Osama bin Laden are often at cross-purposes with the madrasas:  "[T]here is a growing body of evidence that bin Laden himself actually despises what he sees as the nit-picking juridical approach of the madrasa-educated ulema (clerics)."  --  Madrasas have not, historically, been a den of obscurantism:  "Throughout much of Islamic history, madrasas were the major source of religious and scientific learning, just as church schools and the universities were in Europe.  Between the seventh and twelfth centuries, madrasas produced free-thinking luminaries such as Alberuni, Ibn Sina, and al-Khwarizmi.  They also produced America's bestselling poet throughout the 1990s, the thirteenth-century Sufi mystic and poet of love and longing, Maulana Jalaluddin Rumi, who, it is often forgotten, was trained as a Muslim jurist, and throughout his life taught Sharia law in a madrasa in Konya.  It is true that Rumi rejected the rigidity of thought and spirituality characteristic of the ulema of his day, but he did so as an insider, from within the system."  --  If Westerners were not so ignorant of Islam, they might recognize the absurdity of their notions, for "[i]n the entire Koran there are only about two hundred verses directly commanding believers to pray and three times that number commanding the believers to reflect, to ponder, and to analyze God's magnificence in nature, plants, stars, and the solar system.  The oldest and greatest of all the madrasas, the al-Azhar university in Cairo, has a good claim to being the most sophisticated school in the entire Mediterranean world during the early Middle Ages.  Indeed the very idea of a university in the modern sense -- a place where students congregate to study a variety of subjects under a number of teachers -- is generally regarded as an innovation first developed at al-Azhar.  In The Rise of Colleges: Institutions of Learning in Islam and the West, George Makdisi has demonstrated how terms such as having 'fellows' holding a 'chair,' or students 'reading' a subject and obtaining 'degrees,' as well as practices such as inaugural lectures, the oral defense, even mortar boards, tassels, and academic robes, can all be traced back to the practices of madrasas."  --  It was largely as a response to Western colonialism that in the mid-19th century a less enlightened kind of madrasa appeared, and "[i]t was, unfortunately, these puritanical Deobandi madrasas that spread throughout North India and Pakistan in the twentieth century, and that particularly benefited from the patronage of General Zia ul-Haq and his Saudi allies in the 1980s. Ironically, the U.S. also played an important part in this harnessing of madrasas for holy war as part of the Afghan jihad," turning these schools to military purposes.  --  Demands to shut down the madrasas are simply untenable:  "To close them down, without first attempting to build up the state sector, would relegate much of the population to a state of ignorance.  It would also be tantamount to instructing Muslims to stop educating themselves about their religion, hardly the best strategy for winning the war for Muslim minds." ...


This interview was occasioned by the award of a business book-of-the-year prize to Thomas Friedman's The World Is Flat from the Financial Times (UK) and Goldman Sachs.  --  The World Is Flat, which has led best-seller lists during much of 2005, is a triumphal defense of globalization as the inevitable result of a "triple convergence" of forces:  "a global, Web-enabled playing field . . . development of new ways to collaborate, . . . and the opening up of the societies of China, India, Russia, Eastern Europe, Latin America, and Central Asia" (Friedman, The World Is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-First Century [Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2005], pp. 177-82).  --  Friedman turns a blind eye to the increasing power of multinational corporations.  --  In his rosy view, globalization is increasingly driven by individuals empowered by new possibilities. -- (He also has a realistic side: "I know the world is not flat," he says on p. 375.)  --  Friedman's Achilles' heel is his blind commitment to Ricardo¬ís theory of comparative advantage, the theoretical underpinning justifying globalization as an economic project, which he regards as revealed truth.  --  While he acknowledges there is currently intense debate over the status of this theory, he dismisses the evidence that the theory is no longer adequate: "Ricardo is still right" (p. 227).  --  On this point, we admit that we have doubts.  --  Another weakness of the book:  Friedman has little to say about the consequences of impending Peak Oil, which renders precarious the complex supply chains based on value-added services, with products in all industries increasingly leveraged through competitive commoditization and the use of labor and services in emerging markets like India and China.  --  And the rapidly increasing inequalities produced by globalization are the source of a host of evils.  --  The genius of Friedman's position (and one of the reasons it has won the business-book-of-the-year award from the Financial Times) is that it fosters a climate conducive to corporate profit-making while also appealing to the deep-seated American commitment to the gospel of Horatio Alger.  --  One of the secrets of its popular appeal is its stern "challenge" to Americans (especially young people) to get back to basics: ambition, the work ethic, and education, especially in science and engineering.  --  In his interview with the Financial Times, all of the characteristics just mentioned are in evidence....


The Chronicle of Higher Education announces on the cover of the current issue:  "A Grand Social Theorist Returns to the Stage."  --  The "grand social theorist" in question is none other than 82-year-old Philip Rieff, about to publish his first book since 1973, to be followed by several others -- including "the 2007 publication of his long-rumored, epic-length book on charisma."  --  Coming from the man who seduced the 17-year-old Susan Sontag when she was a first-year-student at the University of Chicago, this should be piquant.  --  It's hard to take seriously the idea the Rieff's mysterious volumes will have much impact on contemporary thought, though.  --  This hyping of Rieff's books does nothing but make their author look like some modern-day Mr. Casaubon (with the author of Against Interpretation, mutatis mutandis, in the role of Dorothea Brooke).  --  With any luck, Rieff will have time to footnote the gossipy Chronicle of Higher Education article in Sacred Order/Social Order, Volume 1: My Life Among the Deathworks (University of Virginia Press, January 2006) as corroboratory evidence of "the emptiness of . . . the modern 'anti-culture.'"  --  Glenn writes that Rieff's work "might be better understood as a tragic lament than as a call to arms.  He does not believe that any restorative project is actually feasible.  When asked what he believes scholars might do to slow down the process of cultural decline, he says, 'They can become inactivists.  They'll do less damage that way.  Inactivism is the ticket.'"  --  This is so helpful....