Friday,21 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1242, (16-22 April 2015)
Friday,21 September, 2018
Issue 1242, (16-22 April 2015)

Ahram Weekly

An anti-modernist psychosis

Indoctrination into religious dogma is the first step in the formation of a terrorist mentality, one that denies the present to live in an imagined past, writes Azmi Ashour

Al-Ahram Weekly

Is it by ineluctable fate that our societies are plagued by many conflicts? Most of these conflicts reflect the crisis of a particular religious mentality and its inability to come to grips with modernism. Leaps in the way we live and think have shrunk time and space as never before between fellow human beings.

Why is it that we persist in a course opposite to that of all other peoples in the ways we think, behave and manage our lives? We insist on imposing a remote past on a complex present. We need to apply means and methods of a diversity and ingenuity commensurate with our contemporary complexities.

Why is it that we have suddenly become obsessed with the outward forms of religious practice instead of practicing the values of our religion? Because of this attitude, we imagine that we must force our narrow views of this religion on others.

We are oblivious to the fact that across the civilised world Muslims can observe the rites and rituals of their faith without restriction among others who observe their faith with equal freedom, naturally, easily and without all this ostentatious display of religiosity.

The phenomenon has proliferated to such a degree that every town and village inhabited by those possessed by this narrow creed is at risk of these fanatics proclaiming their caliphate and enslaving others in the name of religion. This is in spite of the fact that the real spirit of Islam is built on the principle of freedom of belief.

 The Quranic verses are explicit in this regard: “You have your religion and I have mine”; “Let he who wishes believe and he who wishes not believe”; “No bearer of burdens shall bear another’s burdens”; “Guide whom you love, but God guides whom He so wills.”

How can we explain a backwardness that has its clearest manifestation in the delirium of flagrant pietism, mixed with the illusion of possessing a monopoly on an absolute truth that leads some to lay claim to a holy right to decree the fate of others?

This problem, which has become pervasive in Arab societies and has lured outside parties into capitalising on it to further their own interests, has many causes. However, for the most part they can be traced to the failure of the Arab modernisation project, primarily in its political and cultural dimensions.

The disasters that afflict us today are in large measure due to the political authoritarianism that has gripped our societies and pawned away their prospects for development in order to perpetuate dictatorial regimes.

Instead of promoting education, culture and literature and civic freedoms, these systems cultivated the anti-intellectual and irrational impulses that were intended to bolster regimes but ultimately rendered the mentality of the masses prey to that affected pietism and religious rhetoric that relies on words and attitudes that date back centuries.

Preached from the pulpits every Friday, or even via satellite television made possible by the IT revolution and technology created by modernist culture, these antiquated attitudes and rhetoric offer constant proof of the insidious ignorance that pervades societies that stubbornly resist moving forwards and prefer, instead, to surrender their will to those bent on driving these societies to a remote past where religious fanatics can play king.

Indoctrination into religious dogma is the first stage in the formation of the terrorist mentality. One might be surprised when one reads the backgrounds of the members of terrorist organisations to learn that their beginning was in religious lessons that instilled in them an array of anti-humanist and inhumane ideas that justified murder and destruction in the name of applying “God’s Law.”

It was from there that they graduated up the ladder of extremism until they attained the rung of cutting off heads in the manner of Islamic State (IS) members and their imitators.

Education, modernisation and other “novelties” are heresies to these people. This attitude has generated a decline in human capital among that large traditional religious component of society that, two centuries after the start of the Arab modernist project, should have imbibed modernist values and ideas.

The result is that entire generations have been distorted. They are living in the present with a mentality from the past rather than thinking of the future, striving to come to grips with the problems of the present and using the instruments of the present.

The phenomenon is at its most schizophrenic among students of the modern sciences who are torn between rigid religious dogma and the scientific mentality. Unable to reconcile the two, they abandon careers in medicine or engineering in order to immerse themselves in doctrine and become preachers concerned solely with the divinely prescribed and proscribed.

The natural consequence of this process is that our societies have become the universal exception, the place where every anti-modernist idea and value can thrive and eventually find expression in one of those varying shades of fanaticism.

Within the mosaic of jihadist and terrorist groups every action and mode of behaviour dates from epochs long before the birth of religion and is inimical to the rationalist ideas and systems that enable us to select, formulate and understand the values and principles that enable mankind to improve himself and promote human dignity.

Are those people who cut off their victims’ heads and use the latest technology to film their actions aware of the inherent contradiction? They avail themselves of the products of modernism to assail the intellect, ideas and values of the modernism they so loathe.

Why is the terrorism we see today being waged solely by those who pretend to speak in the name of religion? Who gave them the right to reduce people to servitude so as to force them to conform to the dictates of their crude intellect and behaviour?­­

Man is born free to choose his faith. He was not created to be manipulated by those who claim a religious mantel that somehow entitles them impose their rule on others. It is difficult to determine to what extent these self-styled, pseudo-religious authoritarians are encouraged by people willing to surrender to them the reins to their minds and even their will to breathe, and to what extent pure savagery, tyranny and antediluvian instincts drove them to such heights of brutality and criminality.

The writer is managing editor of the quarterly journal Al-Demoqrateya published by Al-Ahram.

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