My Madrassa

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I was thinking recently about the long-term threat posed by the possibly millions of Muslim boys educated in madrassas (religious schools) in Pakistan, Egypt, Palestine, and other Muslim countries. In the West, we consider these kids to be programmed like robots to pursue a narrow, dogmatic system. And they probably are. How much sense does it make to commit to memory a book written by a 7th-century bandit who claimed to hear voices from on high and to be able to commute nightly from Mecca to Jerusalem? Well, probably about as much sense as reading any other book of divine revelation. Better they should memorize a translation of Harry Potter.

Then it occurred to me that I been through something quite similar, if somewhat less extreme.

I attended S1. Barnabas grade school in Chicago, where the nuns (sporting the outlandish penguin outfits of the era) drilled us mercilessly in the Baltimore Catechism. We parroted rote on all manner of preposterous abstractions like the Immaculate Conception, Original Sin, the Ascension, and the Trinity. We logged hundreds of hours attending Holy Mass, spoken in a language we didn’t understand. We were often sent home with a graven image of the Virgin Mother, before which we were supposed to say the rosary, roping our families into joining us (Remember, kids: The family that prays together, stays together). We spent hours of valuable classroom time in church making the Stations of the Cross. In eighth grade, we spent much of May – “the Month of Mary” – singing interminable hymns to the latter-day reincarnation of Isis. By then I realized that our time would have been much better spent dancing around a maypole in a meadow with maidens, as my ancestors did before St. Patrick convinced them to join a puritanical cannibalistic death cult.

We were taught that anyone who didn’t adhere to the True Faith would, regrettably but entirely justifiably, burn in hell for eternity. Our consciences, and senses of horror, were assuaged with the thought that there was a limbo for the unconverted righteous – but only those who, through no fault of their own, had never been exposed to The Message. We were regaled with innumerable tales of saints who, after a lifetime of severe asceticism (often involving self- mutilation), were granted the most gruesome martyrdom as a reward, in much the way, I would later discover, the Church often treated troublesome nonbelievers as a punishment. The Crusades were portrayed to us as a glorious endeavor to regain the Holy Land from the infidels who’d stolen it, rather than as a cynical adventure to get shiftless

thugs to do to Muslims (and their fellow Christians of Byzantium) what they’d be executed for doing to fellow Christians at home.

Although I was always one to question authority, whisper in class, and make jokes about anything, I was subverted by all this for much longer than I care to admit. If called upon to engage in a jihad … er, crusade, I would almost certainly have joined my less introspective classmates in doing what I believed was in defense of faith and fatherland.

Fortunately, however, I was living in America, a secular society rife with a myriad of influences from which a thoughtful and independent person may choose. And so I became an apostate.

As socially liberal as it is, however, America presents the paradox of also being the most traditionally religious country in the West. I say traditionally religious, because there are numerous religions out there that don’t worship any God you find in a church, synagogue, or mosque. Communism, for instance, which at its zenith claimed close to 2 billion believers, was never more than a secular religion manufactured from a hodgepodge of nitwit opinion, irrationality, and psuedo-science. The most popular religion in today’s Europe, and probably the most rapidly growing one in America, centers not on a successful tribal war god from the Mideast, or a Messiah, but a trinity composed of The Earth, The Environment, and The Ecology. Greenism, with dogmas and rituals as goofy as any, is well on its way to replacing Communism, and is making serious inroads on the older monotheistic religions from the Mideast.

That brings us back to the madrassas and Islam. I’m confident these things will eventually wind up on the scrap heap of history, although perhaps not for the reasons I’d prefer. But you’ve got to take what you can get. In the meantime, most Muslim societies are far poorer and far less open to outside influence than America was in the ’50s and ’60s, when I was growing up. I’m forced to conclude that the Forever War with the Muslims, terrorism, or whatever, now that it’s started, has a long way to run. I just have to imagine me and my friends back at S1. Barnabas, and.- multiply the fervor by ten. A scary thought.

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