THEY CANNOT WIN BUT WE CAN LOSE
Al Qaeda cannot win – after having read the letter again and again by Al Qaeda’s Chief Operation Officer Ayman Zawahiri to the chief of his Iraqi franchise, ‘insurgent’ leader Abu Musab Zarqawi, it is completely clear that this movement is a blimp on the radar screen of history. It doesn’t mean they cannot hurt innocent people, it doesn’t mean they will fade out slowly as the ending of a Hollywood horror picture. But their ideology is a set of extreme concepts in the margins of reality. We are dealing with the phenomenon of collective religious delusions for which Western psychiatrists have created all kinds of fine treatments.
Let me put it differently: these Islamists believe that there is a Cosmic Power outside human consciousness who has been communicating with mankind through a book. I know some things about books. I know how they come to light, how they are constructed and how they function. I can assure my readers: Cosmic Powers don’t write books. If Cosmic Powers exist, they would communicate with us through the new iPod. Or by sending us messages in our mailbox. Why books? Because there was nothing else until the arrival of the telex and telephone.
These Islamists believe that a Cosmic Power first gave his book to the Jews, and according to these Islamists the Jews distorted it. Next he communicated with the Christians, and they distorted the message as well. Next he gave it to the Supreme Messenger (no, this is not a treatment for a new episode of Startrek), and this man got it.
In this book this Cosmic Power orders his followers to convince all humans to follow his guidelines. If they don’t, they should be killed or subjected to special, harsh treatment. His guidelines should be followed strictly. If you die and you have followed his guidelines faithfully, you will be rewarded: you go to a special place where everything you dream of is available without limits for eternity.
The sad thing is: I am not making this up. This narrative is essential for the monotheistic tradition. The Islamists took it to its most radical version. Theirs is a fully magical world, just like the Christian world in the Middle Ages and the world of the ultra-orthodox Jews. The orthodox Christian world outlook had to change under pressure of science, which gradually restricted the fearful magic of Nature – the crib of any religion - to purely personal preferences and personal needs. Science unraveled the movements of the sun, the moon, the cycle of the seasons, the creation of life, and nowhere science found the Cosmic Power, who for many believers still is a Person, as the Man in Charge. If this Cosmic Power exists, it is hiding someplace beyond the frontiers of science and reason.
The present discussion in the USA about Intelligent Design is basically a last, low-level fight about a conflict that really has been resolved in the last two centuries: Bible research has given us lots of fascinating insights into the development of our holy texts. And in my opinion, because these texts are so deeply human, they have grown in beauty the more the human hand is visible. It is quite ridiculous to historicize the events descrtibed in these texts. Some have taken place more or less, some not. They are purely literature of the highest level, written by unknown geniuses with the gifts of Shakespeare, Dante, Cervantes.
The Cosmic Power has not been heard of for many centuries, and it is clear that this Power Designer cannot be present in our reality after the enormous revolutions that took place during the Renaissance and the Enlightenment. Holy books cannot be written anymore. They will be shred to pieces by a reviewer in the New York Review of Books. And nowadays, a person who hears a voice telling him to conquer the world, will be treated as a patient, not as a visionary. We will not find scientific prove for his stories, and most of us will turn to our daily concerns.
Sometimes, a couple of people will be influenced by the charisma of this new Messenger, and in the media this group will be described as a sect of lunatics. The closest we can see in our present the conditions of religious mythology and religious hysteria similar to those in the past, is probably North Korea, where information is strictly controlled and mythologies are spread by design or spontaneously, probably as happened in the decades after for instance Mohammed’s death.
In an era where books were rare and every second of their existence people feared the often terrible, and always magical events in life – birth, death, illnesses, epidemics, roving tribes, natural disasters – a story about a man who heard the voice of the Creator, laid down in a book, could make a devastating impression.
Don’t get me wrong: I love the rituals of religion. I think we need to mark the essential moments in our lives. It is beautiful to thank in a prayer for a meal with friends and family. It is comforting and moving to say a prayer at a grave of a beloved person. And at those moments I hope the Cosmic Power leaves his distant planet for a second to help us, mortals.
The belief in a personal, individual Creator, a power we nowadays feel is synonymous for Goodness and Love, is a new episode in the history of mankind. Even though sportsmen who scored and musicians who get an award make a prayer and thank the Creator for their blessings, the hold of magical thinking on our lives has been reduced tremendously in the last five centuries. God means Goodness to most of us, the bringer of Love, and He is as helpless in the face of Evil as we are.
A magical world is a world fixed in itself. There is an explanation for occurring events in the magic itself. Only after breaking through this closed circle, mankind was able to master the indifference of nature. We now know that sickness is not a punishment by the Creator. We now know that there are no witches, no demons, no ghosts. There is still a lot we don’t know of our reality, but the journey mankind made between 1400 AD and 2000 AD broke the tragic chain of suffering that has been the fate of almost every individual before the rise of modern science.
In this period mankind opened its eyes.
The progress of human civilization can be defined by two developments: the reduction of magical thinking and the expansion of control over Nature. The two developments are interlinked. Although most Americans define themselves as religious, their belief is a totally different set of ideas and emotions than Christians in 1300 AD in Spain or Germany experienced. The modern Creator is a remote power, an Enigma himself, a symbol for the scandal each one of us experiences by being both an animal in our bodies and a God in our minds, during our lifespan searching for eternal answers to our temporary existence.
I am an optimist about the flexibility of our minds, about our amazing ability to solve problems and about the direction of mankind. In this regard I am not condemning religiosity in general: having a personal Creator you don’t fear, having belief in a power that asks you to be a tender, attentive person, is a positive step in the evolution of monotheism.
It is not an accident that the Muslim world is lacking progress in science. Patents are rarely given to Muslims in the Arab Islamic world. It is difficult to do scientific research at Arab universities. Their world view is closed. It is magical – filled with demons and ghosts who could take over your personality. The feeling that everything and everybody is helplessly owned by a Cosmic Power with its own strict supernatural rules, creates passive individuals, obsessed by the fear to trespass the limits set by this Cosmic Power. In such a world superstition, conspiracy theories, the fear of female sexuality, tribal loyalties, flourish.
What we face in Al Qaeda, is the insane un-reality of original monotheistic thought conceived in a ‘holy’ book. It is about the absurdity of the extreme belief in God-given texts which order you to maim and kill, to take slaves as booty, to hide women behind veils, to isolate women when they menstruate, to make pilgrimage to holy places and throw stones or light candles or to stop eating for a month or forbid the flesh of certain beasts.
In the Western world religion evolved from being an explanation for the unjustified sufferings human beings have to endure into a kind of a mood-setting environment for humane self-help sessions. Going to a church does not mean going to a sacral confrontation with your own helplessness; going to a church is a feel-good-event. Naturally, for many believers it is still about raising questions about the source of evil and suffering, for Christians symbolized in the cross, but the religious service and the religious experience in general are meant to be an uplifting, up-beat event.
I once spent two days in a convent. The monks gathered at 5 AM for the first service, like they did in the Middle Ages. This was not a happening preceding the full, wide, colorful embrace of life – this was about a life-long preparation for an existence after death. I met lovely men in there, but at the same time the life in this convent, pure as it may be, was a step back in history.
Nowadays, religion in the West is preparing for the richness of life. Religion in the Arab world is still preparing for the afterlife, for accommodating the rules of the Almighty.
Often, Islam is being compared to the phase of Christianity seven hundred years ago. It needs time to develop, experts explain. I don’t agree. I believe Islam is where Judaism was in the first century AD before the Destruction of the Second Temple. I believe Judaism was saved by this destruction; only after this event it could transform into an open, universal way of life. A God who dwells in a selected building is a tribal God and a limited concept.
Muslims carry this same burden: the central role of Mekka in Islam is transfixing the development of Islam and keeps Islam hostage – think of the role of stones in the Meccan rituals, a legacy of the pre-Islamic religions of the Saudi peninsula - to the mindset of Beduins of the seventh century.
The revolt of orthodox Islamic ideas will fade away. The world moved on since the time the holy book of Islam was composed with material from Christian, Jewish and Beduin sources. The majority of Muslims realize that they have nothing to gain from turning back to a literal devotion to the rules of their God. In Western civilization, one day a man said that God was dead. One day in Mekka, such a man will repeat those words without being killed.
I am not pleading here for the abolition of religion. It would be an immense and empty undertaking. There is a lot of truth in the great myths of religion. And a lot of moving, brilliant poetry. It helps us accepting the limits of our existence. But the moment it creates hate, resentment, aggression, we need to suppress it. If necessary, when it threatens our existence, with violence.
In Zawahiri’s letter there is no mention of hunger or poverty. He is not fighting for freedom or equality or brotherly love. He is obsessed by the tasks he believes his God has imposed upon him. He does not talk about love or forgiveness; he only talks about the need to fight the impure and the infidels. He is regarding life like most human beings have been doing for thousands of years: as a ritualized and violent step towards death.
Zawahiri and his ilk are signifying the end of the morbid phase of monotheism. Modern Christianity and modern Judaism have become life-embracing forms of personal meditation. The majority of Muslims will join them.
The death-loving behavior of the Islamists is not the beginning but the end of a development. They kill innocent people in the lowest manner imaginable because they lost the ability to convince people with other means: the majority of Muslims is, just like most Christians and Jews have experienced, in the middle of losing their fears for the Almighty. They as well start to find out that the world is only what we, mere mortals, make of it and you’d better not bet on what comes after it. This transformation doesn’t happen easily. Vast crises hold the Arab-Islamic world in their grip. I believe these crises are essentially cultural and religious – they are the birth throes of modern individualism in the Muslim world.
Al Qaeda cannot win. It is a manifestation of an outdated and terrifying phase in human development. But that does not mean we cannot lose. Islamist Muslims cannot design and build airplanes, but they can fly one into a majestic building. They can copy the design of a nuclear weapon and bring us the death they love so deeply.
I can write these words freely and without fear of being punished by the religious police. If I would have written these words in 1400 AD, I would have been burned at the stake. If I would have been writing these words in Cairo in 2005, I would have been jailed or Islamists would have come after me to kill me.
Some readers criticize the name of this blog. I am not taking back one inch of it. We live in The Free West. I am proud to live in The Free West. I am proud to be part of its humanistic tradition, its fight against stupidity, magical thinking, superstition, and its fight for freedom and its quest for knowledge, truth, sanity. I realize the black parts of its past. The pages on which the cruelty in European history have been described, fill whole libraries. But still – it is there, this miracle. Never before in human history have so many people enjoyed so much freedom and material and emotional wealth as in the past fifty years in the West.
If you don’t agree with its liberties, please move on to an Afghan cave.