Thursday, 19 May 2011

Charitable giving & education - Islam and an investment model of morality

Call it synchronicity, call it mere coincidence, call it an over-active imagination, but - 

Not long after my recent post on lifelong learning, I went to a Quran reading for a friend’s deceased parents held at a London mosque.  The mosque was  frequented mostly by Pakistanis, was an impressive structure and, given the leaflets and notices on display, seemed popular and well run. 

I assumed that it had been funded by money from Saudi Arabia, but a lady assured me that it had, in fact, been built through donations from the local community.  She went on to explain how her husband, a veteran fundraiser, had discovered over the years that money was always forthcoming for mosques, cemeteries and Quran schools.  However, when he had tried to raise money to build ‘ordinary’ schools 'back home', few seemed interested.  This struck me as strange – and depressing. 

Later, I reflected on the short sermon given by the imam at the end of the reading.  Apparently, according to the Prophet, such Quran readings generated extra credit in the deceased’s ‘good deeds account’ on Judgement Day - or in common parlance, brownie points to aid entry into Paradise.  Sweet.  (So, if your parents end up in hell, it'll be your fault for not holding enough Quran readings on their behalf!)  This triggered a chain of thoughts:

-> hadiths quite often link the doing of a particular deed to benefits on Judgement Day –do this and X sins will be forgiven, do that and you will receive so many good deeds, recite this so many times ... ->

-> The religion appeared to have a rather low opinion of its adherents if it felt that moral behaviour could only be induced by offering these ‘bribes’ – as if there was no other reason for doing good.  (Granted, Islam is not alone in this and it is common to most religions.)  ->

-> I remembered a saying I had heard quite often as a child: paradise lay at the feet of your mother.(No, I was not horrid to my mother nor particulary naughty!)  Thinking about this now, I find it shocking – what kind of people need to be bribed (with heaven or anything) to love their own mother? 

More generally, how might this trade in good deeds shape their view of morality?  And what does this say about the religion’s ability to win the moral argument? (Some would argue that it had long since lost it by the morally dubious if not plain ridiculous 'pricing' of martyrdom at 72 virgins, but we will leave that for another post!)

Of course, the Prophet was a trader by profession, so perhaps the metaphors of bargaining, pricing and returns came naturally to his thinking.  Perhaps the people he was preaching to also had trader mentalities, although this dents somewhat the much-trumpeted claim that Islam is a universal religion for all time.  Moreover, given that Islam was a new movement, spreading the word and bringing more people into the ‘fold’ were no doubt important.  (There are several hadiths regarding the benefits of building mosques, with one even promising an equivalent house in paradise.) 

But 1400 years later, Islam is a global religion with a significant presence.  The problem for it and Muslims today is not quantity, but quality.  There might be more than a billion Muslims in the world, but the vast majority are illiterate and live in countries that rank as the most dishonest, corrupt and dirty, with appalling human rights - hardly a recommendation for the religion now, is it? 

Schools on the other hand, are more ambiguous.  While the Prophet might have urged his followers to travel as far as China in search of knowledge, as far as I know this didn’t increase one’s chances of getting into Paradise.  So, like canny businessmen, were people merely following earlier advice that offered the best and surest  ‘returns’ in the next life?  And with morality so firmly based on rewards in the afterlife, no wonder the Prophet made such a fuss about the importance of believing in a heaven and the next world!  

Or am I just being cynical? 

But what are the effects of such a view?  Ostensibly, the strategy could be seen as clever – a win-win situation: the donators get into heaven, and the money brings in not just more recruits but hopefully observant Muslims that benefits the rest of society.  Unfortunately, it hasn’t worked out that way.  I think this is due to a combination of adopting a narrow view of what constitutes religious practice and of education generally.

In his book Desperately Seeking Paradise, Ziauddin Sardar mentions an encounter with a minister for science and research in one of the Gulf states.  Mr Sardar was anxious to discuss the ministry’s research, but always received the same response:  “‘Why bother about it when we can afford to buy it?’” (p120)  (This cavalier attitude hasn't dimmed over the years, it seems.  Amidst the recent Arab Spring of protest against oppressive regimes, the Saudi king announced huge increases in stipends for Saudi citizens - no doubt to buy their loyalty and acquiescence.)  With such an attitude, it might explain why these ‘nations’ import architects to design their hideous and inappropriate buildings (that are built by labourers mainly from the Indian subcontinent and who are treated almost like slaves – not much after-life credit to be gained in being humane to them, I suppose?); and why the tar on roads – developed for a different climate - melts and bubbles in the intense heat.  They couldn't be bothered to use the few brain cells they have to come up with their own solutions to their own problems.

Meanwhile, it is well-known that that same wealth funds a significant (if not major) part of the madrassas (religious schools) in Pakistan (and other parts of the world) - in the name of spreading Islam!  However, the issue is not of madrassas, per se - for these establishments can be a force for good.  Rather, it is the narrow notion of education that is limited to a religious context defined by the self-appointed 'clerics' or 'ulema'.

On 4 January 2011, the governor of Punjab in Pakistan, Salman Taseer, was assassinated by one of his own bodyguards for attempting to reform the obnoxious blasphemy laws in the country.  The next day, the BBC World Service’s News Hour featured an interview by Owen Bennett-Jones with Tariq Khattak, the editor of an English daily The Pakistan Observer.  Mr Khattak saw nothing wrong with the murder, thought the governor had it coming to him and appealed to the opinion of certain mullahs in Pakistan to support his outrageous view.  It is worth mentioning that for an editor of an English newspaper, his command of the language was rather poor.

Mr Bennett-Jones questioned both the rationale for killing merely for dissenting, the issue of differing interpretations of texts and the editor’s acceptance of the views of men whose education was limited to a theological framework.  Limited only according to him, the editor replied defiantly, but in their eyes (and presumably the editor’s) these mullahs were sufficiently educated.  And there the matter rested. 

Had it been just the editor, one could have dismissed him as a lone idiot, but there are many in the country who support his view.  More alarmingly, a significant number of lawyers were keen to defend the murderer in court.  One has to question the moral reasoning of such lawyers - to say nothing of the quality of education they received - to want to defend such cold-blooded murder.  What hope is there of building a civil, law-abiding society - something sorely lacking in most Muslim countries. 

Alarmingly, this attitude is not confined to the backstreets of Pakistan, but is alive and kicking in London as well - as is evidenced by the sickening story of a Religious Education teacher beaten up (and almost killed) by four conservative Muslims - who remain unrepentant.  (see )

So, on the one hand it is heartwarming to see Muslims giving so generously to help themselves, even if motivated by self-interest - especially, given the huge amounts of money governments spend on defence compared with education, unaware that their biggest enemy is not India, Israel or Zionists, but the ignorance that festers within their own borders and their own minds. 

However, would it not also be admirable if thought were given to how that generosity is employed?  If morality is to be based on an investment model (and I am not suggesting that it should), is it not advisable for investors to periodically check the performance of their ‘portfolio’?  Is it not incumbent to ask if the enterprise conforms - and continues to conform - to what the religion claims to uphold?  And if the charity benefits the giver, is it not also incumbent that it does likewise to the receiver too?

Or do the givers prefer to remain blissfully unaware of the havoc it wreaks on others?  Is that havoc also part of the credit system and religion they subscribe to? Do they think they get a ‘commission’ on each atrocity committed – the better to secure their entry into paradise?    

But wouldn’t it be ironic if on the Day of Reckoning, their accounts were shown to be swollen by misdeeds – misdeeds generated by the money they gave with Paradise in mind, and now good only to propel them in the opposite direction?  No number of Quran readings, then, would be of any use.  Unfortunately, it would also be too late for the country and of little comfort to those whose lives have been ruined by this sordid trade in ‘good’ deeds.

Friday, 6 May 2011

Lifelong learning and constructive recreation

In my previous post, I talked about how my curiosity in how the earth ‘worked’ led me to buy a dvd and a book on the subject to learn more.  All very laudable, I’m sure – even if I say so myself!  And I concede, that my initial literacy was an important contributory factor in motivating me.  However, there is another point that I would like to explore here and that is the privilege of having the opportunity to learn more.  At the risk of sounding an old fart, I can remember a time, when I would also have had the choice of enrolling in an evening class run by the local council.  Sadly, over the years, that option has become increasingly difficult to find. 

The temptation is to blame government cuts that were first introduced by the much celebrated Margaret Thatcher, and that have since continued, under both Conservative and Labour governments, eroding away at what was once a great institution – and all that it stood for.  But I think blaming our leaders is too convenient and - worse - lazy.  Certainly, the leaders – especially when they are as influential (I’m reluctant to use the word ‘charismatic’) as Thatcher and Blair- have contributed to the decline, but the wider society must bear some responsibility too.  (Thatcher, of course, famously dismissed the very notion of 'society', which says a lot about her outlook.) 

For those not familiar with adult education, it consisted of courses in a range of subjects that were offered by the local council’s education department and funded by a combination of local council and central government money.  They were usually held in the evening, made use of local council school facilities and the fees set were, I think, affordable.  Crucially, people enrolled out of interest and for pleasure, not to gain a qualification that they could wave in front of existing or prospective employers.  In short, the courses offered constructive recreation in the belief that learning was a good and worthwhile activity in its own right and a tool for improvement in the broadest sense. 

It was Napolean, I believe, who once dismissed the English as ‘a nation of shopkeepers’.  It was an unjust and unkind assessment - in my experience, every nation, including the French, is to some extent a nation of shopkeepers and thank god for it.  Commerce and trade are vital to the successful functioning and growth of any society. Yet, the shopkeeper’s daughter, Thatcher, was also a person with an outlook so narrow and so narrowly defined it scarcely deserves to be called a vision.  She saw everything through the perspective of a provincial, money-minded upstart and it was a viewpoint that shaped the politicians and business leaders, as well as trends within the wider community, for the generation that followed.  In fact, provincialism under her was almost a virtue to be celebrated. 

And so, over time, the catalogues have got thinner, the range of courses more restricted and adult education has been either amputated or grafted onto an altogether different beast called Further Education.  The New Labour/Blair government rebranded this concept as Lifelong Learning, though in a telling example of just how pervasive the Thatcher mindset was, this learning was largely geared towards gaining a qualification that was marketable.  So, whereas before there was a palpable sense of learning for learning’s sake, the priority now is to get a qualification – any qualification, no matter how manufactured or trivial – that is marketable.  Teaching too is judged on ‘progression’, i.e. whether the student progresses on to another course (and another qualification) or gets a job.  The new mantra is ‘value for money’ and value = economic in their eyes.

Putting this in a wider context, both Thatcher and Blair were also keen to extend pub opening hours and Thatcher sold off council owned sports facilities (tennis courts and playing grounds), a trend that Blair’s New Labour did nothing to reverse.  To me, this is a far greater indicator of their priorities than any rhetoric about nation building that they and their media cronies have thrown at us over the decades. 

Sadly, the people have colluded in this decimation so that we are now also faced with library closures.  With more leisure time, the classes, sports fields and libraries symbolised a constructive alternative to easy and lazy options like the mindless watching of TV, getting drunk at the local pub or shopping – and yet, that is precisely what Britain has been reduced to.

I can remember enrolling in classes ranging from woodwork, badminton, sewing and swimming to studying politics, philosophy and psychology.  Moreover, I did so in the company of like minded individuals and going to evening classes was as much a social event as it was educational – in the broader sense.  As an example, having made my own clothes, I am now filled with a mixture of admiration, awe and anger whenever I see how cheaply clothes are priced in London stores – do the people who crave more and more clothes at less and less cost have any idea what skill, time and effort goes into making these garments?  Would they be prepared to get paid a pittance for the same amount of effort?  "There but for Fortune go you and I", as the great poet once said.  It’s the market say some – be that as it may, in the end markets and demand are shaped by people, but what shapes the people? 

I have nothing against people wanting to improve their or their children’s personal economic circumstances.  Indeed, I am a product of just such social mobility.  However, I think it’s important to also ask the why, what and how underlying this desire for social mobility.  What does moving ‘up’ mean exactly?  Why do people want to move ‘up’, and how will you know if you have moved ‘up’?  Unfortunately, for many, ‘more money’ is the answer to all three questions. 

Since Thatcher, there has been a renewed admiration and respect for money; and both Thatcher and Blair encouraged a sort of cult of not only new money, but fast money.  (Mr Blair’s post-prime ministerial pursuits are ample proof, if any were needed, of this!)  It was not investment for the long-term, but profit in the short-term that became the measure of success; and success was always in terms of monetary gain.  With quick profit, came fast and – worse still - conspicuous spending.  I had thought this was a failing peculiar to the third world and a reason for rampant corruption in these countries.  It was certainly true of Pakistan, where I grew up, and the main reason I wanted to escape. 

This gluttony can be seen in the bonuses that people expect (as if salaries were just for turning up to work?) and the wares advertised and written about in weekend newspaper magazines and television, so that shopping is now a recreational activity in its own right.

Yet, I have met people like my local road sweeper, who saved each month in order to buy a season ticket to the BBC Proms music festival every summer; and a security guard who was a Friend of the British Museum and regularly attended their lectures and events.  They had neither wealth nor degrees, but in my eyes, both these men were far more worthy than those normally honoured in society.  It is their approach, I feel, that should be encouraged.  It is on this kind of attitude that a good society is built.  It is this attitude that makes a country great. 

Instead, it is crass footballers, talentless pop stars, gluttonous bankers and wealthy tax dodgers who are honoured and respected.  Their bombast and strutting leaves ordinary folk in thrall and awe and who then buy into this myth of wealth - ordinary folk like the Thatchers and Blairs of this world; upstarts who have never seen anything and are easily overwhelmed at the first sight of wealth.  Moreover, with money and consumption  elevated to objects of envy, application, effort and persistence are demoted in favour of instant gratification.  It is then that the rot sets in.

Admittedly, there is a wider issue here: is it the role of government to mould a country’s people?  They say "Stateways don’t change folkways”, and in any case, people must be free to decide and choose for themselves.  But these concerns lead one to ask: what is the choice, who provides it and how does one choose?    Some would answer: the market; others religion; and yet others happiness.   I hope to pursue these and similar questions in future posts – and how these issues impact not just on the seeming decline of the West, but on the sorry state of the Muslim world, and indeed the third world in general.