700 years ago, Islam was a dominant global force. It had conquered parts of Europe. It had scientific knowledge more advanced than Europe and a literacy rate that was higher than Europe. But then something changed. What was it, what can we learn from it, and what connection does it have to today's haredim?
While there obviously is no one factor completely responsible for the Ottoman Empire's decline, there is one action taken its leadership took that stands out.
It's something that we can understand very well, because we're seeing a similar move being made now by haredi leadership.
And somehow, it's something I didn't know (or don't remember knowing) until I saw it on a PBS show last week.
When the printing press was invented, the Ottoman Empire banned the printed book. It did so for several reasons, none of which are important here other than to say that they had a religious basis and that they also served to protect a lucrative clerical monopoly .
But the ban – and its strong support by clerics, who often made their living copying manuscripts and selling them – cut off the Ottoman Empire from the scientific advances being made in the Christian West.
A printed book could be typeset, printed, bound and distributed in a relatively short period of time, and relatively inexpensively.
On the other hand, copying manuscripts by hand was a laborious, expensive and time-consuming process.
Details of a scientific discovery made in Florence could reach a large number of fellow scientists in Vienna, Krakow, Paris and London very quickly and uniformly.
But it could not do the same in Istanbul.
In the same way, positive ideas of the West – democracy, the rule of civil law, separation of religion and state – spread throughout the West, reaching the common man and the elite alike. But they did not reach Istanbul.
It doesn't really matter why the Ottoman Empire banned the printing press.
What matters is the impact of that ban on their empire and on Islam.
Even though the ban was eventually lifted, Muslim scientists never caught up. Ottoman society crumbled. The Ottoman Empire became a dank, dark backwater.
Banning the printing press blocked the free, fast and wide flow of information – exactly the same thing banning or heavily censoring the Internet will do.
Scientific and medical advances depend on the free, fast and wide flow of information. And so do healthy societies.
The Internet is to our generation what the printing press was to people who lived 550 years ago, and haredi rabbis want to ban it.
Think about that.