Friday, April 18, 2014

When Islam shone its light on Europe

One thousand years ago, Muslims, Christians and Jews sauntered down the same cobbled pathways in the sun-drenched cities of southern Spain, living, flourishing and contributing to Andalusia’s fashionable society and culture.
The Moors ruled the Iberian Peninsula for nearly 800 years — a long, glorious period of eminence and prosperity, with a vibrant economy, splendid architecture and a growing body of knowledge that made it the centre of the world for centuries.
But all this changed, once a growing strain of intolerance took hold of the Muslim rulers. Add to this the fear that religious movements such as the Crusades had of a Muslim society flourishing as a beacon of learning for the rest of the world, and glorious Spain was soon swept away.
Iyad Al Baghdadi, a researcher based in the UAE, says that “the fact that the downfall of Andalusia can be attributed to intolerance and fanaticism, holds important lessons for us”.

Eventually, Islam disappeared from the Peninsula, with the Muslim population dwindling to zero once the expulsion orders came. As the Portuguese Dominican monk, Damian Fonseca, said, this was no less than an “agreeable holocaust”.
The coming of the Moors
In the year 711, a Christian chief sent out a letter to Mousa Bin Nusayr, the governor of North Africa, requesting assistance to get rid of the tyrannical Visigoth ruler of Spain, Roderick. Mousa responded by sending the young Muslim general Tarek Bin Ziyad with 7,000 North African Berber troops under his command.
This story does not resonate well universally, for while all historians agree that Tarek did invade Spain, most believe that the reasons behind the invasion were not as noble, and had more to do with expanding Muslim territory.
By 720, the Moors (as the Arab-led Muslim troops were called) had conquered most of Spain and Portugal, almost unhindered and unopposed in their takeover.
An important reason for their conquest at breakneck speed was their generosity in terms of their conditions for surrender. In return for the loyalty of local officials, the Moors allowed them to retain their positions of authority.
But because the Muslim forces were made up of different nationalities, it was difficult to find coherence in them. And it did not help that although Muslims are all equal in the eyes of the Almighty, the Arabs treated the Berber tribesmen as second-class citizens, usurping all the best lands and riches.
There was much tumult, uncertainty and even a Berber revolt, in the period immediately following the Moorish conquest. This anarchy allowed for the survival of three important Christian states: Leon, Castile and Aragon.
But stability returned to Spain by 750 with the formation of a heartland for Muslim rule in southern Spain: the Andalusia region.
Abdurehman, the sole survivor of Umayyad Dynasty, who escaped the Abbasid dynasty’s fierce coup, found his way to Spain. He is credited for binding together all the Muslim groups that had conquered Spain, and establishing a degree of control over the frontiers. He was extremely ambitious, ruling with authority after shifting the capital from Toledo, the old Visigothic centre, to Cordova, making it the new capital of the Umayyad Caliphate.
The golden period
By the year 1000, the Muslim rulers had turned Al Andalus into the greatest economic, social and cultural power in the world — founding a civilisation based on knowledge and faith. The population of Iberia at this time was more than five million — mostly Muslim.
The Moors were highly skilled agriculturalists, and their engineers mastered the construction of extensive irrigation and waterwheel systems, some of which have survived to this day. They introduced cotton, rice, lemons and strawberries in addition to the peaches, pomegranates, apricots and oranges already growing there, boosting the agriculture industry.
The government was able to lower tax rates even more as the economy flourished. It then turned to the growth of urban industries, utilising the mineral wealth of copper, gold, silver, tin and lead, and also making way for the establishment of the silk, glass, woollens and paper — and book-making industries. An indication of Moorish prosperity is that government revenue was said to have reached 6.5 million gold dinars (about Dh4.3 billion) per year in those times.
But the greatest legacy of the Moors to Europe was the establishment of Al Andalus as the cynosure of knowledge. At a time when the rest of Europe was in “darkness” so to speak, Muslim Spain was a shining light — the centre of learning.
Education was widespread in the 10th and 11th centuries, with 17 established universities in Moorish Spain. The finest of these were located in Almeria, Cordova, Granada, Juen, Malaga, Seville and Toledo.
Scholars, scientists and artists formed learned societies, and scientific congresses were organised to promote research and extend the reach of knowledge.
Moorish Spain boasted more than 70 libraries, of which the one in Cordova (said to be Hakam II’s personal collection) housed more than 6,000,000 volumes. These books were purchased and painstakingly brought from Baghdad, Basra, Kufa, Damascus, Cairo, Makkah and Madinah.
Sadly, this precious, priceless collection was destroyed — not in the Spanish Inquisition — but long before that; Al Mansour, a subsequent Muslim ruler who was ultra-orthodox, deemed the library useless and full of “ancient science” books, passing the order that they be burnt.
Hakam II, the second ruler of the caliphate, also ordered the translation of several ancient Greek and Latin works, earning the title of a patron of knowledge in the Muslim world. Ground-breaking achievements were made in the areas of mathematics, medicine, astronomy, geography and philosophy. Famous thinkers from this period, such as Ibn Massara and Ibn Rushd and the Jewish Mosheh Bin Maimoon (Maimonides) — the most prolific scholar of Torah — eventually helped usher medieval Europe out of the Dark Ages.
In fact, Ibn Rushd, known as Averroes in the West, devoted his life to reconciling faith with reason, focusing especially on Aristotle’s philosophies, and laying the true foundation for Europe’s Rennaisance.
“Ibn Rushd is considered a key figure in modern secularism,” Al Baghdadi says. “Unfortunately, [due to the Almohads, and their intolerance and fanaticism] Maimonides fled to Egypt where he lived, taught and died; Ibn Rushd also lived during the Almohad period, and he was banished and his books burnt.”
In “The Golden Ages of History”, Joseph McCabe, a prolific British writer on science, religion, politics, history and culture, describes Cordova of those times, in some of the book’s most beautiful passages:
“In Cordova, the old packed Cordova, they would find a city of 250,000 houses … Its streets were paved — so soundly, indeed, that in some of them you tread the same stones today, just as you cross the Guadalquivir on the same noble bridge — drained by large sewers, … and lit by lamps at night … It had 900 public baths — we are told that a poor Arab would go without bread rather than soap — and more than 1,000 mosques, the largest of which is still one of the architectural wonders of the world in spite of later Spanish disfigurements.”
This was hundreds of years before there was a paved street in Paris or a street lamp in London. And public baths were an amenity that was enjoyed by the inhabitants of Moorish Spain when Christian Europe regarded cleanliness as a sin.
The bridge that McCabe refers to is the elegantly-arched Puente Romano (a vestige left over from the centuries spent under Roman occupation). Besides offering some fabulous views of the Mezquita, it has also been built over a significant waterway of Spain.
The mosque that he refers to is the Great Mosque of Cordova, now referred to as the Mezquita-Cetedral. It dates back to this caliphate, with expansion work carried out in four stages lasting two centuries to give the world the most adept form of Moorish architecture.
Under Hakam II, the second ruler of the caliphate, the capital enjoyed unparalleled ethnic, cultural and religious harmony. He ensured that the Muslims, Christians and Jews lived in peace.
“While the government of the times is to be credited with building this tolerant society, it is also true that the Umayyad Arabs were a minority and therefore had to treat other social groups with tolerance and a relatively light hand; meanwhile the Almohads and Almoravids that followed were Berbers and had a relative numerical majority and that contributed to their relative tyranny,” Al Baghdadi explains.
Although historians worry about the extent to which people tend to over-romanticise this as the “golden period of coexistence”, there was indeed a respect for one another’s sacred texts. Yet the reality was perhaps a bit more complicated.
In “The Jews of Islam”, the eminent historian Bernard Lewis says that non-Muslims in Moorish Spain were second-class citizens. But he adds that “second-class citizenship, though second class, is a kind of citizenship. It involves some rights, though not all, and is surely better than no rights at all ...”
Before 1050, Jews and Christians contributed a great deal to the culture and society of Al Andalus, were retained in the civil service of the Muslim rulers, and were not prevented from earning a living in any particular sector or industry.
The non-Muslims of Spain were not forced to live in ghettos, or any special areas. Their movements were unrestricted, and there were no forced conversions. Non-Muslims could follow their belief system, as long as they paid jizya, a tax levied on all non-Muslims.
The position of non-Muslims in Spain depreciated considerably by the middle of the 11th century, as intolerance began to find its way into the government.
However, things became far more difficult for minority-faith groups once Christianity replaced Islam in Spain.
Decline and downfall of the Moors
In the 1000s, the caliphate split up into small factions that came to be known as “taifas”. Distrust and disunity in these city-states made them vulnerable to invasions and conquests by the Christian kingdoms in the north, although the Almovarid and Almohad movements from North Africa tried to check this growing tide.
But despite Christian conquests, the Muslim rulers maintained their independence, even though they to pay tributes to the Christians who conquered their states.
The Almovarids can be blamed for sowing the seeds of hostility in Spain. They refused to allow for any breaches of Islamic law, and were absolutely intolerant of the Jews and Christians. Meanwhile, the Christian princes grew more aggressive, desperate for revenue that they had been generating from Muslim states in the form of tributes before the Almovarids put a stop to them. Also the church reform movement wanted to channel the energies of the Europe’s nobility into campaigns such as the wars in Spain and the Crusades to serve its own interests.
By the mid-13th century, Moorish rule was confined to Granada, where a ruling dynasty that came to be known as the Nasrids established their kingdom in the 1230s.
For more than 250 years, Granada remained a tributary to the powerful Castile kingdom, paying a sum annually to remain independent.
Poetry, art and architecture continued to flourish here, even as the influx of refugees from the north continued to increase. Some of the jewels of Islamic architecture are found here — the remains of the glorious Al Hambra complex of palaces and the Generalife gardens.
When he visited Spain in the 1800s, the American historian Washington Irving wrote, “They (the Muslims) deserved this beautiful country, for they won it bravely, and they enjoyed it generously and kindly. Everywhere I meet traces of their sagacity, courage, urbanity, high poetic feeling and elegant taste. The noblest institutions in this part of Spain, the best inventions for comfortable and elegant living, and those attitudes and customs which throw a peculiar and oriental charm over the Andalusian mode of living may be traced to the Moors.”
Granada’s luck ran out in the 1400s, with the marriage of Ferdinand and Isabella. The union ended the internal disputes of the former rivals, Aragon and Castile — the two most powerful Christian kingdoms on the Iberian Peninsula.
Together, King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella waged a war aimed at destroying the last vestige of Muslim power in Spain. Mohammad, the son of the sultan of Granada, helped them in this cause. A year into the siege of Granada, he rebelled against his father, and later, uncle, in the hope of being allowed to rule independently once the war was over.
Just when he had settled in the ruling seat, he received a letter from King Ferdinand ordering him to abdicate.
He realised too late that he had been used as a pawn to weaken Granada. He sought help from Muslim kingdoms throughout North Africa and the Middle East but none came.
Sultan Mohammad was exiled after signing the handover treaty papers. On his way out of the city, he stopped at a mountain pass to look back. He started to cry. Unimpressed by his sudden remorse, his mother chided him: “Do not cry like a woman for that which you could not defend as a man.”
In the end, constant infighting, a focus of Muslim rulers on strengthening only themselves rather than stressing on unity, and a lack of support from other Muslim empires, closed the chapter of Moorish rule in Spain forever.
After the Reconquest, as it is called, the marginalised Muslims were faced with a new, daunting prospect — a choice between forced conversion and expulsion.
Plight of religious minorities
For some historians, the campaign of ethnic cleansing that raised its ugly head once the country was “reunited as Christian Spain” has become associated with the persecution of the Jews, while the plight of the Moors is mostly ignored.
Yet nowhere was racial and religious tolerance so pronounced as it was in the Christian Spain of the 1600s — and this was so for both the Jews and Muslims.
Despite a clause in the handover treaty that allowed the new subjects of the crown to preserve their mosques and religious practices, and retain the use of their language, within seven years, the terms were broken. The Jews faced almost immediate persecution and expulsion orders once the takeover of Granada was complete.
But the Muslims fared no better.
Roger Boase, writing in “History Today”, says, “In medieval times the status of Muslims under Christian rule was similar to that of Christians under Muslim rule: they belonged to a protected minority which preserved its own laws and customs in return for tribute. But there was no Scriptural basis for the legal status of Jews and Muslims under Christian rule; they were subject to the whims of rulers, the prejudices of the populace and the objections of the clergy.”
The Catholic Church made it a priority to convert Muslims, now that they were not protected by the state. Muslims could choose between being baptised and leaving the country. Most Muslims chose the former, although secretly remaining attached to Islam. These supposed “converts” were called the Moriscos, a derogatory term but used by historians to define the Arabs who remained in Spain after the fall of Granada.
When it became clear to the Christian rulers that the Muslims remained adherent to their beliefs, they were harassed and tortured to ensure their “true” conversion. Their wealth and properties were confiscated, all Arabic texts (except medical ones) burnt, children separated from their mothers, and rebels reduced to slaves. Even then, if Muslims were found abiding by their beliefs, they were imprisoned.
The church dictated royal legislation at just about every stage. Juan de Ribera, the ageing Archbishop of Valencia, convinced King Philip that the mere demographic factor would have the “Moriscos outnumbering the Christians in no time”.
Hence, about 100 years after Granada’s fall, the King of Spain signed an edict that expelled all the Moriscos from Spain. They were given three days to pack up and leave.
And so the Muslims were removed from Spain in 1610. The Spanish government gave clear orders to the Christians to harass, or even kill, as many of them as possible before they left.
According to Roger Boase, “The full tale of the sufferings endured by the Moriscos has never fully been told: how those who survived the journey arrived at their destination starving and destitute because the bare necessities and money that they were permitted to take with them had been extorted from them by thieves and swindlers; how those travelling overland to France were forced by farmers to pay whenever they drank from a river or sat in the shade of a tree; how thousands of those who resisted and survived ended their days as galley-slaves; how those waiting to board ship were starved so that they would agree to sell their children in exchange for bread; how it was the official policy of the church to separate Morisco children from their parents.”
Ribera’s suggestion that the thousands of Muslim children leaving with their parents be held back so that they could be trained as priests found much appreciation in the royal courts. He also suggested that they be brought up only by farmers or artisans, and definitely not be allowed to study literature. That way, it was hoped that all memories of Muslim Spain would be wiped out for ever.
How many Moriscos eventually reached North Africa and parts of the Ottoman Empire are unknown, for no Muslim historian has dealt with the subject. But Stanley Lane-Poole, the British orientalist and scholar, says that no less than three million Moors were banished after the fall of Granada.
Many modern Western historians, in their aim to banish the dark pages of their side of history, and lay all the blame of savagery on the Muslims, quote the number in merely thousands. And most claim that they were transported on specially arranged boats and ships from the Spanish naval fleet. Again, how small or overloaded these boats were, and the precarious conditions of this travel find little mention in their books.
In fact, some historians such as Henry Lapeyre and P. Conrad go even further, justifying the expulsion (read extermination) as a need of the times.
According to Al Baghdadi, “For many years after the final fall, Arabs would suffix their mention of Al Andalus with a short prayer, ‘raddaha Allah’ (may God return it). Five centuries later, Al Andalus is to Arabs a symbol of magnificent glory and irrecoverable loss. The mention of Al Andalus brings to the contemporary Arab deep feelings of both great pride and heart-rending sorrow. Some see parallels between the final expulsion of its people and the displacement of the Palestinians from their homeland, raddaha Allah.”
There is nothing in Islamic history that matches the story of the rise and decline of Al Andalus. Spain has paid a heavy price for denying the country’s Jewish and Muslim cultural roots for so long.
In today’s Europe, home to more than 30 million Muslims and 1.5 million Jews, it is perhaps time to revise and rewrite history so the Moorish legacy can be granted its rightful place — a place so aptly defined by R.B. Smith, in his book “Mohammed and Mohammedanism”: “Yet even now, the traveller in Spain feels as he approaches Andalusia that he is breathing a clearer atmosphere, that he is brought into contact with a finer literature, and is contemplating a far nobler architecture than any which the more northern parts of the peninsula can boast. Moorish, not Catholic, is everything that appeals to his imagination and to his finer feelings; Moorish are the legends and the ballads of the country; Moorish are the Alcazar and the Giralda of Seville; Moorish everything that is not discordant in the once matchless Mosque, now the interpolated Cathedral of Cordova; Moorish all the glories of the Alhambra. And as the traveller passes the hill which is still called, with such deep pathos, ‘the last sigh of the Moor’, he feels that the day which saw the fall of Granada is a day over which every Spaniard may well sigh for what it cost Spain, and every European for what it cost humanity at large.”
Rabia Alavi is a Dubai-based writer. You can follow her on Twitter at
A church inside a mosque
  • The Patio de los Naranjos (Courtyard of the Orange Trees) forms the only entrance to the Mezquita, open to the public now. At the fountain here the worshippers washed before entering the mosque, but of course that was before it was consecrated and converted into a cathedral.
  • The incongruity of the situation is striking — there is a church inside the mosque. But despite the fact that many inhabitants of Cordova refer to it as the Mezquita, the former Grand Mosque is a Christian place of worship — where mass is held, and which accommodates a cathedral nave right in its centre. It has several chapels with pictorial depictions and statues of events and people, and a bell tower (exquisitely splendid on its own) that has taken place of the former minaret. It is now the pealing of the bells that wakes people up every morning — not the muezzin’s call for prayer.
  • While some overzealous Muslims try to sneak two rakahs of prayer inside, the truth is that this grand monument of Islamic history has been handed over, albeit unwillingly, to the Christians.
  • In fact, it is perhaps the mosque’s conversion into a church that it has been spared the ruthless destruction of Islamic heritage in other parts of Spain. Even Al Hambra, the jewel of Granada, was pillaged and plundered for centuries after the Christian takeover, before foreigners and historians emphasised the importance of preserving the architecture. The new rulers were indeed not very magnanimous towards the city’s Muslim and Jewish inhabitants.
  • The enormous prayer hall of the Mezquita is a vast forest of nearly 900 red and white onyx and marble pillars supporting double arches, arranged cleverly to run in absolute symmetry. It is dark inside, for the windows of coloured glass that let in sunlight in the past are now sealed, making room for windowless chapels on all four sides of the rectangular building.
  • The richly guilded mihrab is a domed shrine, and still a masterpiece of art, with intricate Quranic verses and designs of plants and flowers carved into the mosaic. But somehow, it seems less grand when compared to the oddly protruding structure, but nevertheless exquisite.
Carved into the landscape
  • After centuries of neglect and vandalism, some parts of the Al Hambra palaces are now well restored. A myriad of enticing marble colonnades, arches and stuccoed domes lead to solid wooden doors that stand intact, as does a most perfect dome of moc├írabes, an Arab form of decoration. The most famous fountain of the complex is also found in the centre of one of the courtyards — a basin held up by a circle of 12 lions that throw in jets of water.
  •  The Generalife gardens are adjacent to the Palace buildings. A masterpiece of horticulture, they were designed as a place to rest and relax for the Nasrid rulers. Said to have undergone several alterations since they were first built, the gardens retain their splendour. Roses in full bloom line flower beds running across the length of the gardens while carefully trimmed green shrubs such as willow and cypress give the gardens both uniformity and privacy. An intricate network of canals and aqueducts, some of which have survived from the Nasrid period, extend for about eight kilometres. It brings an incessant supply of water from the Daro river to keep the fountains running and the gardens alive.

Friday, April 11, 2014

School is a prison — and damaging our kids Longer school years aren't the answer.

Longer school years aren't the answer. The problem is school itself. Compulsory teach-and-test simply doesn't work

Parents send their children to school with the best of intentions, believing that’s what they need to become productive and happy adults. Many have qualms about how well schools are performing, but the conventional wisdom is that these issues can be resolved with more money, better teachers, more challenging curricula and/or more rigorous tests.
But what if the real problem is school itself? The unfortunate fact is that one of our most cherished institutions is, by its very nature, failing our children and our society.
School is a place where children are compelled to be, and where their freedom is greatly restricted — far more restricted than most adults would tolerate in their workplaces. In recent decades, we have been compelling our children to spend ever more time in this kind of setting, and there is strong evidence (summarized in my recent book) that this is causing serious psychological damage to many of them. Moreover, the more scientists have learned about how children naturally learn, the more we have come to realize that children learn most deeply and fully, and with greatest enthusiasm, in conditions that are almost opposite to those of school.
Compulsory schooling has been a fixture of our culture now for several generations. It’s hard today for most people to even imagine how children would learn what they must for success in our culture without it. President Obama and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan are so enamored with schooling that they want even longer school days and school years. Most people assume that the basic design of schools, as we know them today, emerged from scientific evidence about how children learn best. But, in fact, nothing could be further from the truth.

Schools as we know them today are a product of history, not of research into how children learn. The blueprint still used for today’s schools was developed during the Protestant Reformation, when schools were created to teach children to read the Bible, to believe scripture without questioning it, and to obey authority figures without questioning them. The early founders of schools were quite clear about this in their writings. The idea that schools might be places for nurturing critical thought, creativity, self-initiative or ability to learn on one’s own — the kinds of skills most needed for success in today’s economy — was the furthest thing from their minds. To them, willfulness was sinfulness, to be drilled or beaten out of children, not encouraged.

When schools were taken over by the state and made compulsory, and directed toward secular ends, the basic structure and methods of schooling remained unchanged. Subsequent attempts at reform have failed because, though they have tinkered some with the structure, they haven’t altered the basic blueprint. The top-down, teach-and-test method, in which learning is motivated by a system of rewards and punishments rather than by curiosity or by any real, felt desire to know, is well designed for indoctrination and obedience training but not much else. It’s no wonder that many of the world’s greatest entrepreneurs and innovators either left school early (like Thomas Edison), or said they hated school and learned despite it, not because of it (like Albert Einstein).
It’s no wonder that, today, even the “best students” (maybe especially them) often report that they are “burned out” by the schooling process. One recent top graduate, explaining to a newspaper reporter why he was postponing college, put it this way:  “I was consumed with doing well and didn’t sleep a lot the last two years. I would have five or six hours of homework each night. The last thing I wanted was more school.”
Most students — whether A students, C students, or failing ones — have lost their zest for learning by the time they reach middle school or high school. In a recent research study, Mihaly Czikszentmihalyl and Jeremy Hunter fitted more than 800 sixth- through 12th-graders, from 33 different schools across the country, with special wristwatches that provided a signal at random times of day. Whenever the signal appeared, they were to fill out a questionnaire indicating where they were, what they were doing, and how happy or unhappy they were at the moment. The lowest levels of happiness, by far, occurred when they were in school and the highest levels occurred when they were out of school playing or talking with friends. In school, they were often bored, anxious or both. Other researchers have shown that, with each successive grade, students develop increasingly negative attitudes toward the subjects taught, especially math and science.
As a society, we tend to shrug off such findings. We’re not surprised that learning is unpleasant. We think of it as bad-tasting medicine, tough to swallow but good for children in the long run. Some people even think that the very unpleasantness of school is good for children, so they will learn to tolerate unpleasantness, because life after school is unpleasant. Perhaps this sad view of life derives from schooling. Of course, life has its ups and downs, in adulthood and in childhood. But there are plenty of opportunities to learn to tolerate unpleasantness without adding unpleasant schooling to the mix. Research has shown that people of all ages learn best when they are self-motivated, pursuing questions that are their own real questions, and goals that are their own real-life goals. In such conditions, learning is usually joyful.
* * *
I have spent much of my research career studying how children learn. Children come into the world beautifully designed to direct their own education. They are endowed by nature with powerful educative instincts, including curiosity, playfulness, sociability, attentiveness to the activities around them, desire to grow up and desire to do what older children and adults can do.
The evidence for all this as it applies to little children lies before the eyes of anyone who has watched a child grow from birth up to school age. Through their own efforts, children learn to walk, run, jump and climb. They learn from scratch their native language, and with that, they learn to assert their will, argue, amuse, annoy, befriend, charm and ask questions. Through questioning and exploring, they acquire an enormous amount of knowledge about the physical and social world around them, and in their play, they practice skills that promote their physical, intellectual, social and emotional development. They do all this before anyone, in any systematic way, tries to teach them anything.
This amazing drive and capacity to learn does not turn itself off when children turn 5 or 6. We turn it off with our coercive system of schooling. The biggest, most enduring lesson of our system of schooling is that learning is work, to be avoided when possible.
The focus of my own research has been on learning in children who are of “school age,” but who aren’t sent to school, or not to school as conventionally understood. I’ve examined how children learn in cultures that don’t have schools, especially hunter-gatherer cultures, the kinds of cultures in which our species evolved. I’ve also studied learning in our culture by children who are trusted to take charge of their own education and are provided with the opportunity and means to educate themselves. In these settings, children’s natural curiosity and zest for learning persist all the way through childhood and adolescence, and into adulthood.
Another researcher who has documented the power of self-directed learning is Sugata Mitra. He set up outdoor computers in very poor neighborhoods in India, where most children did not go to school and many were illiterate. Wherever he placed such a computer, dozens of children would gather around and, with no help from adults, figure out how to use it. Those who could not read began to do so through interacting with the computer and with other children around it. The computers gave the children access to the whole world’s knowledge — in one remote village, children who previously knew nothing about microorganisms learned about bacteria and viruses through their interactions with the computer and began to use this new knowledge appropriately in conversations.
Mitra’s experiments illustrate how three core aspects of human nature — curiosity, playfulness and sociability — can combine beautifully to serve the purpose of education. Curiosity drew the children to the computer and motivated them to explore it; playfulness motivated them to practice many computer skills; and sociability allowed each child’s learning to spread like wildfire to dozens of other children.
* * *
In our culture today, there are many routes through which children can apply their natural drives and instincts to learn everything they need to know for a successful adulthood. More than 2 million children in the United States now base their education at home and in the larger community rather than at school, and an ever-increasing proportion of their families have scrapped set curricular approaches in favor of self-directed learning. These parents do not give lessons or tests, but provide a home environment that facilitates learning, and they help connect their children to community activities from which they learn. Some of these families began this approach long ago and have adult children who are now thriving in higher education and careers.
My colleague Gina Riley and I recently surveyed 232 such families. According to these families’ reports, the main benefits of this approach lie in the children’s continued curiosity, creativity and zest  for learning, and in the freedom and harmony the entire family experiences when relieved of the pressures and schedules of school and the burden of manipulating children into doing homework that doesn’t interest them. As one parent put it, “Our lives are essentially stress free … We have a very close relationship built on love, mutual trust, and mutual respect.” She went on to write: “As an educator I see that my daughter has amazing critical thinking skills that many of my adult college students lack … My daughter lives and learns in the real world and loves it. What more could I ask for?”
Riley and I are currently completing a study of approximately 80 adults who themselves were home schooled in this self-directed way when they were of “school age.”  The full results are not yet in, but it is clear that those who took this approach came from a variety of socioeconomic backgrounds and have, as a whole, gone on very successfully into adulthood.
As the self-directed approach to home education has increased in popularity, more and more centers and networks have popped up to offer resources, social connections and additional educational opportunities for children and families taking this approach (many are listed on a new compendium website, With these — along with libraries and other community resources that have always been available and, of course, the Internet — the educational opportunities are boundless.
But not every family has the wherewithal or desire to facilitate children’s self-directed education at home. For many, a better option is a so-called democratic school, where children have charge of their own education in a setting that optimizes their educational opportunities and where there are many other children with whom to socialize and learn. (Such schools should not be confused with Montessori schools or other types of “progressive” schools that permit more play and offer more choices than do standard schools but nevertheless maintain a top-down, teacher-to-student system of authority and a relatively uniform curriculum that all students are expected to follow.)
Over many years, I’ve observed learning at one such place, the Sudbury Valley School, in Framingham, Mass. It’s called a school, but is as different as you can imagine from what we usually think of as “school.”  The students, who range in age from 4 to about 18, are free all day to do whatever they want, as long as they don’t break any of the school rules. The rules, which are created democratically at the School Meeting by students and staff together, have nothing to do with learning; they have to do with keeping peace and order and are enforced by a judicial system modeled after that of our larger society. The school currently has about 150 students and 10 staff members, and it operates on a per-student budget that is less than half that of the surrounding public schools. It accepts essentially all students who apply and whose parents agree to enroll them.
Today approximately two dozen schools exist in the United States that are explicitly modeled after Sudbury Valley, and others exist that have most of its basic characteristics. Compared to other private schools, these schools charge low tuitions, and some have sliding tuition scales. Students come from a wide variety of backgrounds and with a wide variety of personalities.
To people who haven’t witnessed it firsthand, it’s hard to imagine how such a school could work. Yet Sudbury Valley has been in existence now for 45 years and has hundreds of graduates, who are doing just fine in the real world.
Many years ago, my colleague David Chanoff and I conducted a follow-up study of the school’s graduates. We found that those who had pursued higher education (about 75 percent) reported no particular difficulty getting into the schools of their choice and doing well there once admitted. Some, including a few who had never previously taken a formal course, had gone on successfully to highly prestigious colleges and universities. As a group, regardless of whether or not they had pursued higher education, they were remarkably successful in finding employment. They had gone into a wide range of occupations, including business, arts, science, medicine, other service professions, and skilled trades. Most said that a major benefit of their Sudbury Valley education was that they had acquired a sense of personal responsibility and capacity for self-control that served them well in all aspects of their lives.  Many also commented on the importance of the democratic values that they had acquired, through practice, at the school.  More recently, two larger studies of graduates, conducted by the school itself, have produced similar results and been published as books.
Students in this setting learn to read, calculate and use computers in the same playful ways that kids in hunter-gatherer cultures learn to hunt and gather. They also develop more specialized interests and passions, which can lead directly or indirectly to careers. For example, a highly successful machinist and inventor spent his childhood playfully building things and taking things apart to see how they worked. Another graduate, who became a professor of mathematics, had played intensively and creatively with math. And yet another, a high-fashion pattern maker, had played at making doll clothes and then clothes for herself and friends.
I’m convinced that Sudbury Valley works so well as an educational setting because it provides the conditions that optimize children’s natural abilities to educate themselves. These conditions include a) unlimited opportunity to play and explore (which allows them to discover and pursue their interests); b) access to a variety of caring and knowledgeable adults who are helpers, not judges; c) free age mixing among children and adolescents (age-mixed play is far more conducive to learning than is play among those who are all at the same level); and d) direct participation in a stable, moral, democratic community in which they acquire a sense of responsibility for others, not just for themselves. Think about it: None of these conditions are present in standard schools.
I don’t mean to paint self-directed education as a panacea. Life is not always smooth, no matter what the conditions. But my research and others’ research in these settings has convinced me, beyond any doubt, that the natural drives and abilities of young people to learn are fully sufficient to motivate their entire education. When they want or need help from others, they ask for it. We don’t have to force people to learn; all we need to do is provide them the freedom and opportunities to do so. Of course, not everyone is going to learn the same things, in the same way, or at the same time. But that’s a good thing. Our society thrives on diversity. Our culture needs people with many different kinds of skills, interests and personalities. Most of all, we need people who are pursuing life with passion and who take responsibility for themselves throughout life. These are the common denominators of people who have taken charge of their own education.
Peter Gray is a research professor of psychology at Boston College. His most recent book is "Free to Learn: Why Unleashing the Instinct to Play Will Make Our Children Happier, More Self Reliant, and Better Prepared for Life" (Basic Books, 2013). He is also author of an introductory psychology textbook ("Psychology," Worth Publishers, now in its sixth edition), a regular blog for Psychology Today magazine called Freedom to Learn, and many academic articles dealing with children’s natural ways of learning. Along with a number of colleagues, he recently launched a web site ( designed to help families find or create settings for children’s self-directed learning.

How Moscow is Trying to Integrate Crimean Muslims

Ravil Gainutdin attends the assembly of Crimean Tatars, in Bakhchisaray, March 29, 2014.

When Russian President Vladimir Putin announced the annexation of Crimea on March 18, he highlighted the area’s sacred history, invoking the tenth-century conversion of Vladimir the Great to Christianity. But Putin’s references to religion were complicated by the absence at the ceremonies of Kirill I, the patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church.
In the third row, however, behind pro-Kremlin representatives of the Russian Crimean community and other Russian lawmakers and officials, sat the Russian Federation’s two highest-ranking Muslim clerics. Although Putin never mentioned Islam in his speech, their presence at the ceremony, accentuated by their turbans and robes amid a sea of black suits and ties, sent an unmistakable message. The Crimean crisis is not just about Russia’s relationship with the West; it is also very much about Islam’s role in Russia.
Russia's Muslim elites have long played an important role in Russian state expansion. At key junctures in Russian and Soviet history, Muslim clerics from the Volga region cajoled Muslim populations along the southern and eastern frontiers of the empire to become subjects of the tsar. Formal expansion was typically followed by a wave of Tatar merchants, who thrived in newly incorporated territories and helped integrate Muslims into imperial trade networks. In the Soviet period, a number of Tatars led efforts to create a synthesis between socialism and Islam -- and a bridge between the U.S.S.R. and the Muslim world.
From the first days of the upheaval in Ukraine, prominent members of Russia’s Muslim community have mobilized to court their co-religionists on behalf of Moscow. Talgat Tadzhuddin, who is the head of one of the most powerful Muslim institutions in Russia and was one of the clerics in attendance at Putin's speech, has portrayed the annexation as an act of good will. As Tadzhuddin said in an interview with a Russian news agency, "When a neighbor has a fire, you have to help, considering that the flames might jump to your house." The other leading Muslim cleric who attended Putin's speech, Ravil Gainutdin, has been less effusive than his rival, Tadzhuddin, but has generally toed the Kremlin's line. On the eve of Crimea’s referendum on joining Russia, he reminded the region’s 300,000-strong Tatar population that they comprised only 12 percent of the territory’s population, implying that they should accede to the will of the pro-Moscow majority.
Russia's Muslim elites have long played an important role in Russian state expansion.
Tadzhuddin’s deputies have been even more direct in insisting that Tatars should embrace Russian rule. Pointing to Russia’s large Muslim population, one of his deputies, Damir Gizatullin, asserted in an interview with the Russian press that Russia's compatriots in Ukraine included not just Russians but Tatars as well. He added that Islam would be more secure under Russian rule, because Crimean Tatars would otherwise have to fear the rise of Saudi-influenced radicals in the region: "Ukraine's laws did not forbid the activity of 'members of sects' -- Salafis, all kinds of Wahhabis, and various radical currents that are forbidden in the Russian Federation." (His implicit counterpoint was Russia, where Muslim institutions have enforced Moscow’s edicts against “extremism” in brutal fashion.)
For his part, in late March, Gainutdin traveled to Crimea to meet with the head of the Muslim hierarchy there, Hajji Emirali Ablaev. During his visit, he made a proclamation that his Web site summarized as follows: "The Almighty has ordained that Crimea be attached to the Russian Federation and that the Crimean Tatar nation join the twenty-million strong ummah [Muslim community] of Russia."
But Crimean Tatar elites have mostly responded coolly to these overtures. The Crimean Tatar community generally does not have warm memories of Russian rule. Their ancestors, descendants of Genghis Khan, founded a state of their own in the region in the fifteenth century. Closely tied to the Ottoman Empire, this state, the Crimean Khanate, served as a buffer for the Ottomans and challenged the Muscovites for control of the Black Sea and the steppe region now divided between Ukraine and Russia. In 1783, Catherine the Great dismantled it and integrated the region into the Russian empire.
Some Tatar elites fared well under the new system and even entered the imperial elite. But repeated warfare between the Russians and Ottomans heightened Russian suspicions about the loyalties of these Muslim subjects on Russia's southern frontier. After the Crimean War, which raged among Russia and France, Britain, the Ottoman Empire, and Sardinia between 1853 and 1856, tsarist forces pushed perhaps as many as 100,000 Tatars out of the territory. Doubts about the political allegiances of this community persisted into the Soviet period. Under German occupation, some Crimean Tatars -- much like Soviet citizens under Nazi rule elsewhere -- joined special units aligned with the occupiers. When the Red Army retook the peninsula in 1944, Joseph Stalin responded by ordering a police operation to sweep away the entire Crimean Tatar population (along with some Greeks and Germans) from the region once and for all. Entire Tatar villages and towns were forced into railway cars and shipped to Central Asia and elsewhere in the U.S.S.R.
After Stalin’s death, those lucky enough to survive the journey were determined to end their exile, but the state repressed or ignored their petitions and protests. They only began returning to Crimea in significant numbers in the late 1980s. After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the Crimean Tatar nationalist movement pushed for the new Ukrainian state to restore their property, language, and civic rights, but the Russian majority in Crimea and the government in Kiev showed little sympathy.
In 2013, Tatar relations soured with both Moscow and Kiev. A film titled Khaitarma, which dramatized Stalin's deportation of the Crimean Tatars through the story of a decorated Tatar fighter pilot (who had been declared the "hero of the Soviet Union"), became a flashpoint for conflict. The Russian consul in Crimea provoked outrage among Tatars when he asserted that the filmmakers had distorted the history of World War II and revived accusations about Tatars’ collaboration with the Nazis. Meanwhile, Crimean Tatar leaders stepped up pressure on the Ukrainian government for assistance in organizing repatriation efforts, expanded language rights, and quotas for Tatar inclusion in local government. When protesters took to the Maidan in Kiev last fall, nationalist leaders such as Refat Chubarov, the head of the Crimean Tatar nationalist assembly, the Mejlis, joined the fray and spoke before the demonstrators. It soon became clear, however, that the Crimean Tatars (and Ukraine's Muslims in general) were divided over how to respond to the incipient revolution. At least six clerical institutions and two organizations claimed to speak for Ukrainian Muslims and Islam. Some supported the Maidan protesters, but others were more skeptical and remained apolitical or sympathized with the pro-Russian orientation of the government. Confusion about the position of Ukrainian Muslims was reflected in the case of one activist at the demonstrations, Alexander Krivonosov, who claimed to speak for a Muslim organization but was soon revealed to be a KGB veteran of the Afghan war and was quickly disavowed by the group.
Russia's incursion into Crimea heightened the Crimean Tatars’ anxieties, as they nervously monitored the activities of the assorted gangs of Cossacks, paramilitaries, and bikers that accompanied Russian forces. (At least one Tatar has been murdered in a case in which Crimean Tatar leaders blame pro-Russian militants.) A former Soviet dissident and Crimean Tatar activist, Mustafa Dzhemilev, warned that Russia might face a "jihad" if it mistreated the Tatar population. Others expressed anxiety over a new wave of expulsions. Muslim delegations from Russia have gone to Crimea to try to allay the Tatars’ fears. But Crimean Tatars remain suspicious of Moscow, and they mostly refused to participate in the referendum requesting annexation.
Despite Tatars’ suspicions of Putin, his post-annexation speech rather dramatically promised to fulfill many long-standing Crimean Tatar nationalist demands. He declared that Tatar would be made an official language in Crimea on a par with Russian and Ukrainian. He also made a rare acknowledgement of the Soviet deportation of Tatars from Crimea, even if he added that "Russian people" had suffered more than others from the repressions of that era. The president promised to take "all necessary political and legislative decisions to complete the process of the rehabilitation of the Crimean Tatar people, which restore their rights and good name to the fullest extent." (In turn, on March 20, in a symbolic gesture rendered moot by the Kremlin's annexation of Crimea, Ukraine’s parliament, the Verkhovna Rada, finally recognized the Tatars as an "indigenous people" -- a gesture their leaders had long connected to the rights spelled out in the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples of 2007 -- and offered to recognize the Mejlis and another Tatar representative body, the Kurultai.)
Putin recognizes that Muslim cooperation is a necessity for his other foreign policy goals, including the maintenance of solid relations with Iran, Syria, and other states in the Muslim world that might serve as counterweights to the expansion of U.S. power. The Kremlin has so far managed to avoid having its annexation of Crimea complicate its relations with these countries. The Organization of Islamic Cooperation, an international organization of Muslim states, has issued a statement calling for the rights of Crimean Tatars to be respected, and some Turkish politicians have objected to Russian aggression, but these have so far been only very faint voices.
It remains to be seen whether Putin’s pledges and Russian Muslims’ integrative efforts can assuage the Crimean Tatars’ anxieties. Even Russian Muslim elites’ calls for solidarity within the Islamic ummah may not overcome the Crimean Tatars’ doubts. But whatever eventually happens to the Tatars, broad Russian Muslim mobilization on behalf of the Kremlin's geopolitical vision highlights that Muslims have become an important pillar of political support for Putin’s regime. It is difficult to know what senior Muslim clerics may think in private about the Crimean annexation, but in public they have gladly portrayed the move as one that benefits the ummah and Islam. Muslim clerical elites consider Crimea an area where their interests overlap with those of the Putin administration.
But they also undoubtedly expect some political compensation for their pro-Moscow lobbying. Though far from a monolithic group, many Russian Muslims seem authentically moved by the prospect of absorbing Crimea’s Tatar population and reshaping Islam in the region. In Bashkortostan and other regions with sizeable Muslim populations, Muslims have offered declarations of support (including donations for the restoration of mosques and religious landmarks) and participated in rallies celebrating the Russian annexation of Crimea. Leaders of the Tatar diaspora have also welcomed the "return" of their ethnic brothers to Russia. And Ramzan Kadyrov, the Kremlin's strongman in Chechnya, has hailed Russia's expansion, even pledging financial support to sweeten the deal for the residents of Crimea. Few Russian Muslims seem bothered by the fact that Russia's newest territory is an economic basket case and a potential hotbed of ethnic conflict.

For now, the annexation of Crimea has mostly had a paradoxical effect: On the one hand, it has heightened the profile of Russia's Muslim leaders and drawn them closer to the Putin government while straining the Kremlin's relations with the Russian Orthodox Church, which fears losing its Ukrainian flock as a result of Moscow's aggression. The nationalist leadership of the Crimean Tatars, on the other hand, has been outflanked. Yet there is no telling whether Crimea’s Muslim population will remain a stable part of Russia’s Muslim social and political order. If Russia’s Muslim elites try to rid Crimea of ostensibly foreign and dangerous interpretations of Islam, as they have done elsewhere in Russia, Tatars are likely to resist. In that sense, Putin’s success in Crimea may depend not just upon economics or international politics but also on delicate negotiations between Russian Muslim clerics and their fellow believers in Russia’s newest region.

Monday, April 07, 2014

A Jewish state in Saudi Arabia?

A Jewish state in Saudi Arabia? New British document reveals 1917 idea

Dr. M. L. Rothstein proposed to British Ambassador to France Lord Francis Bertie (pictured) that the Entente Powers should gather their troops “for the conquest of the Turkish province of El-Hassa.” (Photo courtesy British Library)

A Jewish state in Saudi Arabia? One Paris-based Russian Jew threw this unorthodox proposal on the table in 1917, according to a recently revealed official British document.

The strategy, which proposed an army of 120,000 Jewish soldiers invading the Gulf, was one man’s solution to carve out land for a Jewish homeland.
Rothstein's original letter (Photo courtesy British Library)

Only two months before the Balfour Declaration was dated, a man named Dr. M. L Rothstein tried to sway then British Foreign Secretary Arthur James Balfour to create a Jewish state in modern day Saudi Arabia.

In a letter released this week by The British Library , Dr. M. L. Rothstein proposed to British Ambassador to France Lord Francis Bertie that the Entente Powers of France, Russia and the United Kingdom gather their troops “for the conquest of the Turkish province of El-Hassa,” for the creation of a Jewish state on the Gulf, in an area which now is part of modern-day Saudi Arabia.
A map of Al-Hasa (Photo courtesy British Library)

Taking the idea very seriously, Rothstein explained in detail how the infiltration would proceed. “I undertake to assemble, for next spring, a Jewish fighting troop, a force of 120,000 strong men" which would double "in cooperation… with the troops of the Entente,” the Russian doctor wrote in his letter.
The man explained that a war with Turkey could ensue but that “Jewish troops will immediately enter into a campaign …until the final victory of the Entente or until their destruction.”

Rothstein’s master plan, which even he admitted in the letter seemed “unrealistic” was rejected by Britain for being “wholly inappropriate.”
Balfour’s private secretary wrote on Oct. 3 1917 requesting that Bertie, the British ambassador to France, communicate to Rothstein the British government’s rejection of the plan.
Rothstein's plan politely rejected (Photo courtesy British Library)
Little is known about Rothstein, the proposal’s architect, who described himself only as a “Russian medical doctor.” Rothstein’s letter is prefaced by underlining his family’s “moral qualities,” and refers to French novelist Maurice Barres who mentions Rothstein’s son in his book, “Les Diverses familles spirituelles de la France.”
Rothstein’s son, Amedee, was a young Russian Zionist cited in the book as someone who exemplified Jewish loyalty to France because of his patriotic death in the Battle of Verdun in 1916.
Rothstein’s relatively unknown proposal barely makes a footnote in history but Daniel Lowe from British Library argues that the sentiment “reflected an historical momentum for the establishment of a Jewish national home, ideologically grounded in European nationalism and seeking legitimacy from European imperial powers.”
Other locations for a Jewish state, besides modern day Saudi Arabia, were also vetoed, including Uganda, Argentina, Russia, and Cyprus. Only a month after snubbing Rothstein’s plan, Balfour wrote the now famous declaration expressing Britain’s favor for the Zionist aim of “the establishments in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people.”
Letter from A. J. Balfour, Foreign Secretary - the formal declaration of the British Government in favour of establishing a national home for the Jews in Palestine, Nov. 2 1917 (Photo courtesy British Library)