The Manufacture of Ignorance – Abdassamad Clarke and Uthman Ibrahim-Morrison

"I refused to go to college because I wanted an education." Gore Vidal

There is a vital need to re-introduce the independence of the scholar, scientist and expert, acknowledging that there are already a substantial number of such people within the academic nexus who against all odds have held to the highest qualities of scholarly integrity but whose valuable work is weighed down by the systemic bias towards various vested interests. Hence, the Muslim Faculty of Advanced Studies is intended as the foundation for a new community of independent scholars, students, members and fellows.

Among the most pressing needs in this area is the much neglected study of history and this is the focus of the Faculty’s inaugural Muslim History and Civilisation and Society programmes. The first course of the former, the History of the Khalifas, spans from the time of the first community of Muslims in Madina right up until the last of the Osmanli khalifas in the early 20th century as well as confronting what Shaykh Dr. Abdalqadir as-Sufi has called ‘the second interregnum’, the epoch in which we live today without the rule of a khalifa. The latter commences with a careful study of the crucible of the modern age – the French Revolution – and everything that has resulted from it. It is a sorry fact of our public life that few of our elected officials have anything but the most superficial knowledge of history, resulting in policy decisions that are, all too often, woefully misguided. There is nowhere in recent times where this has been more egregiously demonstrated than in the domain of foreign policy, where it is exacerbated and compounded by an ignorance of geography and cultural topography amounting to blindness. This has resulted in a series of escapades around the globe whose negative consequences bear the potential to balloon out of all proportion.

How are we supposed to make sense of the world today? The truth is we’re not! And when we say ‘the world today’, that includes the ‘progressive’ collapse of public schooling, the advances of micro-finance in sundry third-world countries, the dietary efficacy of multi-vitamins, discoveries in high energy physics, international banking crises, proxy wars and social media-assisted popular uprisings. Most of us rely on assorted forms of media to help us, whether large state or corporate outlets, dedicated independent media initiatives or the ‘blogosphere’; whether they be highbrow and academic or lowbrow and populist. However, the inevitable result is the ‘culturally produced ignorance or doubt’ which has become the subject of a new area of study: agnotology.

Since the period just prior to the French Revolution it has been the established assumption that journalism, backed by experts and academics will keep us informed so that we can make the kind of intelligent decisions that a modern democracy assumes its citizens will have to make. However, rather than representing the healthy plurality of independent and well informed voices of democratic freedom, the awful truth is that their conflicting narratives have become a nightmare for us due to their sham independence, egregious bias and contempt for the grail of objective truth long sanctified by scientific method. From the word go we are faced with widely differing and mutually contradictory perspectives extending from the upper reaches of academia to the lower depths of popular journalism. So, we have all ended up in a global culture that claims to be rational, while confronting us with a plethora of wildly conflicting viewpoints on every single issue that affects us.

An outstanding example of this is the notorious ‘clash of civilisations’ theory, which to some extent or other will have leached its way into most people’s perceptions. Yet, if one examines the matter properly, it is absolutely clear that whatever animosity we in the West might have been persuaded to harbour for Islam, our daily reality subjects us to dramas of ritualised political combat, such as those between Republicans and Democrats in the US or between Conservatives and Socialists in the UK, whose obviously choreographed moves, like those of professional wrestlers, do not prevent them from generating the highly charged atmosphere of partisanship amongst the spectators required to sustain the fiction.

Looked at dispassionately, the objective approach is in some trouble. If the modern understanding is that an informed people will make intelligent choices, even if only in voting for their democratic representatives, few would argue that this theory actually stands up. Unfortunately, there is scant solace to be gained from clever cynicism such as that expressed by Churchill, “Yes, it is the worst system, except for all the others we have tried”, which while amusing, simply reeks of the criminal indifference to truth which regularly passes for informed comment.

The flaws in this system are obvious and ought to be amenable to simple remedy. Expert and informed opinion is not independent. Ambitious journalists are working for this or that large corporate entity whose raison d’etre is profit; any apparent convergence with the wider interests of humanity is at best secondary, at worst accidental and in either case, short lived. Academic research has largely been seconded to corporate, intelligence and military ends, schools and universities have accepted their role as anterooms to the labour market, while we have all subscribed to the rationale that justifies this.

In an interview with Melvyn Bragg, the late American writer and intellectual Gore Vidal fearlessly painted this dismal picture in its true colours:

MB: But you have great scholars, writers and scientists there. There's still a huge concentration of intelligence in America.

GV: They're all dull.
MB: Every one of them?

GV: Every last one.
MB: How about these academies?

GV: I'm told they are all very good. I refused to go to college because I wanted an education. I knew from my grandfather that this was done by reading, so I read everything I could for years. Still do.
MB: Do you think the academies are not producing any intellectual leadership at all?

GV: We don't have any. This is one thing that I always mean to talk about and never do. Europeans still think that there is an intellectual class here. I have been alive now in this glorious republic for 85 years. I have never found an intellectual class. I haven't found many intellectuals, either.
MB: I persist in thinking that if you go to places such as Harvard, there are very clever people and there are quite a lot of them.

GV: You've got the key word: "clever". Clever is not the phrase in my book and I don't think it is in yours. But it's nice to have cleverness around, of course.1

Returning to the Muslim Faculty of Advanced Studies, both of our new courses, History of the Khalifas and Politics of Power are already significant enough taken separately, but taken together, they represent something new and important: a double inoculation against the twin scourges of fabricated cleverness and manufactured ignorance.

---- 1 “Gore Vidal interviewed by Melvyn Bragg”, the New Statesman, 14th October 2010.