The futility of Islamophobia

What Islam is going through right now is not at all different from the process of reformation that Christianity underwent during the 16th century. Those who are so impatient with reform would do well to read that history.


The First Amendment to the Constitution of the US is unique in the world. Other than religious freedom as well as a bar on Congress from respecting an establishment of religion, this amendment provides for an unfettered right to freedom of speech and press. This is how it should be everywhere ideally but, unfortunately, we live in a less than ideal world. The advantages of having an unfettered right to freedom of speech and press are too numerous to list. Primarily though it creates a society where true scholarship and bona fide research into even the most taboo of topics is possible. This leads to a marketplace of ideas that creates a national intellectual economy so essential to a progressive society. Yet it can also mean that the same freedom is abused. The right to speak is conflated often with the right to offend. Offensive speech, it follows, is protected speech. However, where hate speech leads to hate violence it becomes fighting words.

Now consider the ongoing Islamophobia debate in the US. It is one of the most divisive and polarising debates in that country. Leading this debate are people like Sam Harris and Ayyan Hirsi Ali, who vehemently insist that extremists and terrorists are intellectually honest when committing crimes against humanity in the name of Islam. Their target, without exception, is not extremists or terrorists but moderate Muslims who they contend are intellectually dishonest, naïve or both. Furthermore, they contend that the only way to be a good Muslim is to be a Muslim in name. A corollary is that they believe moderate Muslims shield extremists because they make it impossible to criticise Islam’s true doctrine (ironically laying claim to be the true experts of Islamic doctrine themselves). This, they say, is not Islamophobia but instead legitimate criticism of an ideology that is inherently violent. Needless to say, this abrasive rhetoric is counterproductive to any of the stated objectives of this camp. They can claim as many times as they want that their target is a set of ideas and not Muslim people but the truth is that the Chapel Hill shootings showed that this rhetoric also translates into hate violence.

Perhaps the biggest problem with their penchant to paint the diversity that is Islam with one broad brush is that they forget one fundamental truth: there are close to 1.5 billion people on this Earth who identify themselves as Muslims and modernisation of the Muslim narrative can only happen if you state that their lifeblood, which is their faith, is completely compatible with such modernity. What Islam is going through right now is not at all different from the process of reformation that Christianity underwent during the 16th century. Those who are so impatient with reform would do well to read that history. Indeed, the world of Islam is reforming at a faster rate because of the times we live in. More and more women are part of the work force. At the very basic level there is a realisation that religious freedom is a good thing and civil society in many Muslim countries, especially Pakistan, is very active in speaking out for civil liberties, women’s rights and other issues germane to the modern age. Yes, there are fundamentalists and fanatics creating problems but then what do you think Martin Luther, the father of Christian reformation, was? Lutherans and Catholics both burnt each other at the stake during the 16th century.

The discourse, rightly labelled as Islamophobia, does not aid or speed up the process of Muslim reformation. It hinders it especially since Sam Harris and company goes after not the extremists in the Muslim world but the moderates. When painted into a corner, even a moderate Muslim has to make a choice: to give up his identity and his way of life or to resist. If human history is any indication, nine out of 10 moderates will resist. And there are many achievements in Islamic history that moderates are rightly proud of. The civilisation that Islam ushered in produced Avicenna, Averroes, Rhazes, Al Khawarzimi and countless other men of science and philosophy, who have enriched the human consciousness. Averroes, for example, was precisely the kind of person who would be called an “Islamic apologist” by the Islamophobes of today. He had attempted to reconcile Aristotlean ideas with the Islamic faith. Yet it is Averroes who features prominently in the artwork of the Renaissance period. His influence over western thought cannot be underestimated.

The main objection raised against Islam by its critics today pertains to the Islamic legal system. The criticism holds water because Islamic jurisprudence has remained static since the 12th century. There is no denying of course that the major pre-occupation of Islam has been the law. However, it must be said that compared to the legal systems that existed at the time, i.e. from 650 AD to 1250 AD, Islamic jurisprudence was far more progressive. Then it all came to a halt around the time the great Muslim seat of Islamic learning, Baghdad, the capital of knowledge in the world, was burnt down by Helagu Khan. Islamic law was ossified and limited to dogma. What the critics of Islamic jurisprudence today attack is a corpse rather than a living system. A legal system has to constantly evolve. After all, how does one explain west’s evolution from a society that burnt women at the stake to the one that is subject to the highest principles of human conduct and civil rights?

What is certain, however, is that one cannot hope to reform the Islamic world until and unless one enlists Islam and its doctrine in one’s aid. That is just the way it is. Therefore, one really questions whether piling humiliation or insulting moderate Muslims, instead of welcoming them with open arms, is the forward march of humanity.

By Yasser Latif Hamdani who is a lawyer based in Lahore and the author of the book Mr Jinnah: Myth and Reality. He can be contacted via twitter @therealylh and through his email address


Travel Lets You See Yourself Differently


Travel is a source of inspiration and deep insights. You meet new people and encounter different social circles. You get to see other parts of Allah’s creation. You also get to see new dimensions of human ingenuity and experience the rich history of other parts of the world.

When you stand at the foot of a great mountain, you get a sense of how small you are in the grand scale of things. When you stand next to an immense old Roman column in Lebanon or Morocco, or by the pyramids in Egypt, you get a sense of the immensity of history and the passage of time.

Travellers get the chance to shed formality and pretense in dealing with people. They can eat what they want and dress how they like, without worrying about how it impacts on people’s opinion. The can walk down the roads and alleyways, contemplating Allah’s creation as they like, glorifying Him for the wonders that they see.

They are among people who do not know them. Since travellers are just anonymous people, they can interact with the locals without any pretension. This can be a liberating but also humbling experience, especially for those who enjoyed a degree of fame or prestige back home. No one comes up to shake their hands, stop to speak with them, or even give them a second glance.

One such person entered a library and saw someone coming up to him as if he wanted to greet him. The man was used to receiving such attention back home, so he prepared himself for the encounter. He stood up straighter and turned squarely into the path of the approaching man. He was shocked when the person said to him: “Could you please move over. You’re in my way.”

Travellers are sometimes scolded and criticised because they do not know the local customs and cause offense.

No matter how much prestige they enjoy back home, travellers might find themselves asked by a lorry driver to help him push his stalled vehicle.

Travel writing is a special art, especially when it conveys inspired feelings, noble sentiments, and a renewed awareness of things. The location could be a public park or the view from a balcony or a crowded train, but the writer feels compelled to record the experience and human encounters of that particular place at that precise time.

Dr Salman Al Auda

The Fascinating Origins of Religion — and Why It’s Deeply Intertwined With Violence

The relationship between warfare and religion is infinitely more complex than most of us realize.

Photo Credit:

Excerpted from Fields of Blood by Karen Armstrong. Copyright © 2014 by Karen Armstrong. Excerpted by permission of Random House Audio, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Every year in ancient Israel the high priest brought two goats into the Jerusalem temple on the Day of Atonement. He sacrificed one to expiate the sins of the community and then laid his hands on the other, transferring all the people’s misdeeds onto its head, and sent the sin-laden animal out of the city, literally placing the blame elsewhere. In this way, Moses explained, “the goat will bear all their faults away with it into a desert place.” In his classic study of religion and violence, René Girard argued that the scapegoat ritual defused rivalries among groups within the community. In a similar way, I believe, modern society has made a scapegoat of faith.

In the West the idea that religion is inherently violent is now taken for granted and seems self-evident. As one who speaks on religion, I constantly hear how cruel and aggressive it has been, a view that, eerily, is expressed in the same way almost every time: “Religion has been the cause of all the major wars in history.” I have heard this sentence recited like a mantra by American commentators and psychiatrists, London taxi drivers and Oxford academics. It is an odd remark. Obviously the two world wars were not fought on account of religion. When they discuss the reasons people go to war, military historians acknowledge that many interrelated social, material, and ideological factors are involved, one of the chief being competition for scarce resources. Experts on political violence or terrorism also insist that people commit atrocities for a complex range of reasons. Yet so indelible is the aggressive image of religious faith in our secular consciousness that we routinely load the violent sins of the twentieth century onto the back of “religion” and drive it out into the political wilderness.

Even those who admit that religion has not been responsible for all the violence and warfare of the human race still take its essential belligerence for granted. They claim that “monotheism” is especially intolerant and that once people believe that “God” is on their side, compromise becomes impossible. They cite the Crusades, the Inquisition, and the Wars of Religion of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. They also point to the recent spate of terrorism committed in the name of religion to prove that Islam is particularly aggressive. If I mention Buddhist non- violence, they retort that Buddhism is a secular philosophy, not a religion. Here we come to the heart of the problem. Buddhism is certainly not a religion as this word has been understood in the West since the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. But our modern Western conception of “religion” is idiosyncratic and eccentric. No other cultural tradition has anything like it, and even premodern European Christians would have found it reductive and alien. In fact, it complicates any attempt to pronounce on religion’s propensity to violence.

To complicate things still further, for about fifty years now it has been clear in the academy that there is no universal way to define religion. In the West we see “religion” as a coherent system of obligatory beliefs, institutions, and rituals, centering on a supernatural God, whose practice is essentially private and hermetically sealed off from all “secular” activities. But words in other languages that we translate as “religion” almost invariably refer to something larger, vaguer, and more encompassing. The Arabic din signifies an entire way of life. The Sanskrit dharma is also “a ‘total’ concept, untranslatable, which covers law, justice, morals, and social life.” The Oxford Classical Dictionary firmly states: “No word in either Greek or Latin corresponds to the English ‘religion’ or ‘religious.’” The idea of religion as an essentially personal and systematic pursuit was entirely absent from classical Greece, Japan, Egypt, Mesopotamia, Iran, China, and India. Nor does the Hebrew Bible have any abstract concept of religion; and the Talmudic rabbis would have found it impossible to express what they meant by faith in a single word or even in a formula, since the Talmud was expressly designed to bring the whole of human life into the ambit of the sacred.

The origins of the Latin religio are obscure. It was not “a great objective something” but had imprecise connotations of obligation and taboo; to say that a cultic observance, a family propriety, or keeping an oath was religio for you meant that it was incumbent on you to do it. The word acquired an important new meaning among early Christian theologians: an attitude of reverence toward God and the universe as a whole. For Saint Augustine (c. 354–430 CE), religio was neither a system of rituals and doctrines nor a historical institutionalized tradition but a personal encounter with the transcendence that we call God as well as the bond that unites us to the divine and to one another. In medieval Europe, religio came to refer to the monastic life and distinguished the monk from the “secular” priest, someone who lived and worked in the world (saeculum).

The only faith tradition that does fit the modern Western notion of religion as something codified and private is Protestant Christianity, which, like religion in this sense of the word, is also a product of the early modern period. At this time Europeans and Americans had begun to separate religion and politics, because they assumed, not altogether accurately, that the theological squabbles of the Reformation had been entirely responsible for the Thirty Years’ War. The conviction that religion must be rigorously excluded from political life has been called the charter myth of the sovereign nation-state. The philosophers and statesmen who pioneered this dogma believed that they were returning to a more satisfactory state of affairs that had existed before ambitious Catholic clerics had confused two utterly distinct realms. But in fact their secular ideology was as radical an innovation as the modern market economy that the West was concurrently devising. To non-Westerners, who had not been through this particular modernizing process, both these innovations would seem unnatural and even incomprehensible. The habit of separating religion and politics is now so routine in the West that it is difficult for us to appreciate how thoroughly the two co-inhered in the past. It was never simply a question of the state “using” religion; the two were indivisible. Dissociating them would have seemed like trying to ex- tract the gin from a cocktail.

In the premodern world, religion permeated all aspects of life. We shall see that a host of activities now considered mundane were experienced as deeply sacred: forest clearing, hunting, football matches, dice games, astronomy, farming, state building, tugs-of-war, town plan- ning, commerce, imbibing strong drink, and, most particularly, warfare. Ancient peoples would have found it impossible to see where “religion” ended and “politics” began. This was not because they were too stupid to understand the distinction but because they wanted to invest every- thing they did with ultimate value. We are meaning-seeking creatures and, unlike other animals, fall very easily into despair if we fail to make sense of our lives. We find the prospect of our inevitable extinction hard to bear. We are troubled by natural disasters and human cruelty and are acutely aware of our physical and psychological frailty. We find it astonishing that we are here at all and want to know why. We also have a great capacity for wonder. Ancient philosophies were entranced by the order of the cosmos; they marveled at the mysterious power that kept the heavenly bodies in their orbits and the seas within bounds and that ensured that the earth regularly came to life again after the dearth of winter, and they longed to participate in this richer and more permanent existence.

They expressed this yearning in terms of what is known as the perennial philosophy, so called because it was present, in some form, in most premodern cultures.Every single person, object, or experience was seen as a replica, a pale shadow, of a reality that was stronger and more enduring than anything in their ordinary experience but that they only glimpsed in visionary moments or in dreams. By ritually imitating what they understood to be the gestures and actions of their celestial alter egos—whether gods, ancestors, or culture heroes—premodern folk felt themselves to be caught up in their larger dimension of being. We humans are profoundly artificial and tend naturally toward archetypes and paradigms. We constantly strive to improve on nature or approximate to an ideal that transcends the day-to-day. Even our contemporary cult of celebrity can be understood as an expression of our reverence for and yearning to emulate models of “superhumanity.” Feeling ourselves connected to such extraordinary realities satisfies an essential craving. It touches us within, lifts us momentarily beyond ourselves, so that we seem to inhabit our humanity more fully than usual and feel in touch with the deeper currents of life. If we no longer find this experience in a church or temple, we seek it in art, a musical concert, sex, drugs— or warfare. What this last may have to do with these other moments of transport may not be so obvious, but it is one of the oldest triggers of ecstatic experience. To understand why, it will be helpful to consider the development of our neuroanatomy.

Each of us has not one but three brains that coexist uneasily. In the deepest recess of our gray matter we have an “old brain” that we inherited from the reptiles that struggled out of the primal slime 500 million years ago. Intent on their own survival, with absolutely no altruistic impulses, these creatures were solely motivated by mechanisms urging them to feed, fight, flee (when necessary), and reproduce. Those best equipped to compete mercilessly for food, ward off any threat, dominate territory, and seek safety naturally passed along their genes, so these self- centered impulses could only intensify. But sometime after mammals appeared, they evolved what neuroscientists call the limbic system, per- haps about 120 million years ago. Formed over the core brain derived from the reptiles, the limbic system motivated all sorts of new behaviors, including the protection and nurture of young as well as the formation of alliances with other individuals that were invaluable in the struggle to survive. And so, for the first time, sentient beings possessed the capacity to cherish and care for creatures other than themselves.

Although these limbic emotions would never be as strong as the “me first” drives still issuing from our reptilian core, we humans have evolved a substantial hard-wiring for empathy for other creatures, and especially for our fellow humans. Eventually, the Chinese philosopher Mencius (c. 371–288 BCE) would insist that nobody was wholly without such sympathy. If a man sees a child teetering on the brink of a well, about to fall in, he would feel her predicament in his own body and would reflexively, without thought for himself, lunge forward to save her. There would be something radically wrong with anyone who could walk past such a scene without a flicker of disquiet. For most, these sentiments were essential, though, Mencius thought, somewhat subject to individual will. You could stamp on these shoots of benevolence just as you could cripple or deform yourself physically. On the other hand, if you cultivated them, they would acquire a strength and dynamism of their own.

We cannot entirely understand Mencius’s argument without considering the third part of our brain. About twenty thousand years ago, during the Paleolithic Age, human beings evolved a “new brain,” the neocortex, home of the reasoning powers and self-awareness that enable us to stand back from the instinctive, primitive passions. Humans thus became roughly as they are today, subject to the conflicting impulses of their three distinct brains. Paleolithic men were proficient killers. Before the invention of agriculture, they were dependent on the slaughter of animals and used their big brains to develop a technology that enabled them to kill creatures much larger and more powerful than themselves. But their empathy may have made them uneasy. Or so we might conclude from modern hunting societies. Anthropologists observe that tribesmen feel acute anxiety about having to slay the beasts they consider their friends and patrons and try to assuage this distress by ritual purification. In the Kalahari Desert, where wood is scarce, bushmen are forced to rely on light weapons that can only graze the skin. So they anoint their arrows with a poison that kills the animal—only very slowly. Out of ineffable solidarity, the hunter stays with his dying victim, crying when it cries, and participating symbolically in its death throes. Other tribes don animal costumes or smear the kill’s blood and excrement on cavern walls, ceremonially returning the creature to the underworld from which it came.

Paleolithic hunters may have had a similar understanding. The cave paintings in northern Spain and southwestern France are among the earliest extant documents of our species. These decorated caves almost certainly had a liturgical function, so from the very beginning art and ritual were inseparable. Our neocortex makes us intensely aware of the tragedy and perplexity of our existence, and in art, as in some forms of religious expression, we find a means of letting go and encouraging the softer, limbic emotions to predominate. The frescoes and engravings in the labyrinth of Lascaux in the Dordogne, the earliest of which are seventeen thousand years old, still evoke awe in visitors. In their numinous depiction of the animals, the artists have captured the hunters’ essential ambivalence. Intent as they were to acquire food, their ferocity was tempered by respectful sympathy for the beasts they were obliged to kill, whose blood and fat they mixed with their paints. Ritual and art helped hunters express their empathy with and reverence (religio) for their fellow creatures—just as Mencius would describe some seventeen millennia later—and helped them live with their need to kill them.

In Lascaux there are no pictures of the reindeer that featured so largely in the diet of these hunters. But not far away, in Montastruc, a small sculpture has been found, carved from a mammoth tusk in about 11,000 BCE, at about the same time as the later Lascaux paintings. Now lodged in the British Museum, it depicts two swimming reindeer. The artist must have watched his prey intently as they swam across lakes and rivers in search of new pastures, making themselves particularly vulnerable to the hunters. He also felt a tenderness toward his victims, conveying the unmistakable poignancy of their facial expressions without a hint of sentimentality. As Neil MacGregor, director of the British Museum, has noted, the anatomical accuracy of this sculpture shows that it “was clearly made not just with the knowledge of a hunter but also with the insight of a butcher, someone who had not only looked at his animals but had cut them up.” Rowan Williams, the former archbishop of Canterbury, has also reflected insightfully on the “huge and imaginative generosity” of these Paleolithic artists: “In the art of this period, you see human beings trying to enter fully into the flow of life, so that they become part of the whole process of animal life that’s going on all around them . . . and this is actually a very religious impulse.” From the first, then, one of the major preoccupations of both religion and art (the two being inseparable) was to cultivate a sense of community—with nature, the animal world, and our fellow humans.

We would never wholly forget our hunter-gatherer past, which was the longest period in human history. Everything that we think of as most human—our brains, bodies, faces, speech, emotions, and thoughts— bears the stamp of this heritage. Some of the rituals and myths devised by our prehistoric ancestors appear to have survived in the practices of later, literate cultures. In this way, animal sacrifice, the central rite of nearly every ancient society, preserved prehistoric hunting ceremonies and the honor accorded the beast that gave its life for the community. Much of what we now call “religion” was originally rooted in an acknowledgment of the tragic fact that life depended on the destruction of other creatures; rituals were addressed to helping human beings face up to this insoluble dilemma. Despite their real respect, reverence, and even affection for their prey, however, ancient huntsmen remained dedicated killers. Millennia of fighting large aggressive animals meant that these hunting parties became tightly bonded teams that were the seeds of our modern armies, ready to risk everything for the common good and to protect their fellows in moments of danger. And there was one more conflicting emotion to be reconciled: they probably loved the excitement and intensity of the hunt.

Here again the limbic system comes into play. The prospect of killing may stir our empathy, but in the very acts of hunting, raiding, and battling, this same seat of emotions is awash in serotonin, the neurotransmitter responsible for the sensation of ecstasy that we associate with some forms of spiritual experience. So it happened that these violent pursuits came to be perceived as sacred activities, however bizarre that may seem to our understanding of religion. People, especially men, experienced a strong bond with their fellow warriors, a heady feeling of altruism at putting their lives at risk for others and of being more fully alive. This response to violence persists in our nature. The New York Times war correspondent Chris Hedges has aptly described war as “a force that gives us meaning”:

War makes the world understandable, a black and white tableau of them and us. It suspends thought, especially self-critical thought. All bow before the supreme effort. We are one. Most of us willingly accept war as long as we can fold it into a belief system that paints the ensuing suffering as necessary for a higher good, for human beings seek not only happiness but meaning. And tragically war is some- times the most powerful way in human society to achieve meaning.

It may be too that as they give free rein to the aggressive impulses from the deepest region of their brains, warriors feel in tune with the most elemental and inexorable dynamics of existence, those of life and death. Put another way, war is a means of surrender to reptilian ruthlessness, one of the strongest of human drives, without being troubled by the self- critical nudges of the neocortex.

The warrior, therefore, experiences in battle the transcendence that others find in ritual, sometimes to pathological effect. Psychiatrists who treat war veterans for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) have noted that in the destruction of other people, soldiers can experience a self- affirmation that is almost erotic. Yet afterward, as they struggle to disentangle their emotions of pity and ruthlessness, PTSD sufferers may find themselves unable to function as coherent human beings. One Vietnam veteran described a photograph of himself holding two severed heads by the hair; the war, he said, was “hell,” a place where “crazy was natural” and everything “out of control,” but, he concluded:

The worst thing I can say about myself is that while I was there I was so alive. I loved it the way you can like an adrenaline high, the way you can love your friends, your tight buddies. So unreal and the realest thing that ever happened. . . . And maybe the worst thing for me now is living in peacetime without a possibility of that high again. I
hate what that high was about but I loved that high.

“Only when we are in the midst of conflict does the shallowness and vapidness of much of our lives become apparent,” Hedges explains. “Trivia dominates our conversation and increasingly our airwaves. And war is an enticing elixir. It gives us a resolve, a cause. It allows us to be noble.” One of the many, intertwined motives driving men to the battlefield has been the tedium and pointlessness of ordinary domestic existence. The same hunger for intensity would compel others to become monks and ascetics.

The warrior in battle may feel connected with the cosmos, but after- ward he cannot always resolve these inner contradictions. It is fairly well established that there is a strong taboo against killing our own kind—an evolutionary stratagem that helped our species to survive. Still, we fight. But to bring ourselves to do so, we envelop the effort in a mythology—often a “religious” mythology—that puts distance between us and the enemy. We exaggerate his differences, be they racial, religious, or ideological. We develop narratives to convince ourselves that he is not really human but monstrous, the antithesis of order and goodness. Today we may tell ourselves that we are fighting for God and country or that a particular war is “just” or “legal.” But this encouragement doesn’t always take hold. During the Second World War, for instance, Brigadier General S. L. A. Marshall of the U.S. Army and a team of historians interviewed thousands of soldiers from more than four hundred infantry companies that had seen close combat in Europe and the Pacific. Their findings were startling: only 15 to 20 percent of infantrymen had been able to fire at the enemy directly; the rest tried to avoid it and had developed complex methods of misfiring or reloading their weapons so as to escape detection.

It is hard to overcome one’s nature. To become efficient soldiers, recruits must go through a grueling initiation, not unlike what monks or yogins undergo, to subdue their emotions. As the cultural historian Joanna Bourke explains the process:

Individuals had to be broken down to be rebuilt into efficient fighting men. The basic tenets included depersonalization, uniforms, lack of privacy, forced social relationships, tight schedules, lack of sleep, disorientation followed by rites of reorganization according to military codes, arbitrary rules, and strict punishment. The methods of brutalization were similar to those carried out by regimes where men were taught to torture prisoners.

So, we might say, the soldier has to become as inhuman as the “enemy” he has created in his mind. Indeed, we shall find that in some cultures, even (or perhaps especially) those that glorify warfare, the warrior is somehow tainted, polluted, and an object of fear—both an heroic figure and a necessary evil, to be dreaded, set apart.

Our relationship to warfare is therefore complex, possibly because it is a relatively recent human development. Hunter-gatherers could not afford the organized violence that we call war, because warfare requires large armies, sustained leadership, and economic resources that were far beyond their reach. Archaeologists have found mass graves from this period that suggest some kind of massacre, yet there is little evidence that early humans regularly fought one another. But human life changed forever in about 9000 BCE, when pioneering farmers in the Levant learned to grow and store wild grain. They produced harvests that were able to support larger populations than ever before and eventually they grew more food than they needed. As a result, the human population increased so dramatically that in some regions a return to hunter-gatherer life became impossible. Between about 8500 BCE and the first century of the Common Era—a remarkably short period given the four million years of our history—all around the world, quite independently, the great majority of humans made the transition to agrarian life. And with agriculture came civilization; and with civilization, warfare.

In our industrialized societies, we often look back to the agrarian age with nostalgia, imagining that people lived more wholesomely then, close to the land and in harmony with nature. Initially, however, agriculture was experienced as traumatic. These early settlements were vulnerable to wild swings in productivity that could wipe out the entire population, and their mythology describes the first farmers fighting a desperate battle against sterility, drought, and famine. For the first time, backbreaking drudgery became a fact of human life. Skeletal remains show that plant- fed humans were a head shorter than meat-eating hunters, prone to anemia, infectious diseases, rotten teeth, and bone disorders. The earth was revered as the Mother Goddess and her fecundity experienced as an epiphany; she was called Ishtar in Mesopotamia, Demeter in Greece, Isis in Egypt, and Anat in Syria. Yet she was not a comforting presence but extremely violent. The Earth Mother regularly dismembered con- sorts and enemies alike—just as corn was ground to powder and grapes crushed to unrecognizable pulp. Farming implements were depicted as weapons that wounded the earth, so farming plots became fields of blood. When Anat slew Mot, god of sterility, she cut him in two with a ritual sickle, winnowed him in a sieve, ground him in a mill, and scattered his scraps of bleeding flesh over the fields. After she slaughtered the enemies of Baal, god of life-giving rain, she adorned herself with rouge and henna, made a necklace of the hands and heads of her victims, and waded knee-deep in blood to attend the triumphal banquet.

These violent myths reflected the political realities of agrarian life. By the beginning of the ninth millennium BCE, the settlement in the oasis of Jericho in the Jordan valley had a population of three thousand people, which would have been impossible before the advent of agriculture. Jericho was a fortified stronghold protected by a massive wall that must have consumed tens of thousands of hours of manpower to construct. In this arid region, Jericho’s ample food stores would have been a magnet for hungry nomads. Intensified agriculture, therefore, created conditions that that could endanger everyone in this wealthy colony and transform its arable land into fields of blood. Jericho was unusual, however—a portent of the future. Warfare would not become endemic in the region for another five thousand years, but it was already a possibility, and from the first, it seems, large-scale organized violence was linked not with religion but with organized theft.

Agriculture had also introduced another type of aggression: an institutional or structural violence in which a society compels people to live in such wretchedness and subjection that they are unable to better their lot. This systemic oppression has been described as possibly “the most subtle form of violence,” and, according to the World Council of Churches, it is present whenever “resources and powers are unequally distributed, concentrated in the hands of the few, who do not use them to achieve the possible self-realization of all members, but use parts of them for self-satisfaction or for purposes of dominance, oppression, and control of other societies or of the underprivileged in the same society.” Agrarian civilization made this systemic violence a reality for the first time in human history.

Paleolithic communities had probably been egalitarian because hunter-gatherers could not support a privileged class that did not share the hardship and danger of the hunt. Because these small communities lived at near-subsistence level and produced no economic surplus, inequity of wealth was impossible. The tribe could survive only if everybody shared what food they had. Government by coercion was not feasible because all able-bodied males had exactly the same weapons and fighting skills. Anthropologists have noted that modern hunter-gatherer societies are classless, that their economy is “a sort of communism,” and that people are honored for skills and qualities, such as generosity, kindness, and even-temperedness, that benefit the community as a whole. But in societies that produce more than they need, it is possible for a small group to exploit this surplus for its own enrichment, gain a monopoly of violence, and dominate the rest of the population.

As we shall see in Part One, this systemic violence would prevail in all agrarian civilizations. In the empires of the Middle East, China, India, and Europe, which were economically dependent on agriculture, a small elite, comprising not more than 2 percent of the population, with the help of a small band of retainers, systematically robbed the masses of the produce they had grown in order to support their aristocratic life- style. Yet, social historians argue, without this iniquitous arrangement, human beings would probably never have advanced beyond subsistence level, because it created a nobility with the leisure to develop the civilized arts and sciences that made progress possible. All premodern civilizations adopted this oppressive system; there seemed to be no alternative. This inevitably had implications for religion, which permeated all human activities, including state building and government. Indeed, we shall see that premodern politics was inseparable from religion. And if a ruling elite adopted an ethical tradition, such as Buddhism, Christianity, or Islam, the aristocratic clergy usually adapted their ideology so that it could support the structural violence of the state.

In Parts One and Two we shall explore this dilemma. Established by force and maintained by military aggression, warfare was essential to the agrarian state. When land and the peasants who farmed it were the chief sources of wealth, territorial conquest was the only way such a kingdom could increase its revenues. Warfare was, therefore, indispensable to any premodern economy. The ruling class had to maintain its control of the peasant villages, defend its arable land against aggressors, conquer more land, and ruthlessly suppress any hint of insubordination. A key figure in this story will be the Indian emperor Ashoka (c. 268–232 BCE). Appalled by the suffering his army had inflicted on a rebellious city, he tirelessly promoted an ethic of compassion and tolerance but could not in the end disband his army. No state can survive without its soldiers. And once states grew and warfare had become a fact of human life, an even greater force—the military might of empire—often seemed the only way to keep the peace.

So necessary to the rise of states and ultimately empires is military force that historians regard militarism as a mark of civilization. With- out disciplined, obedient, and law-abiding armies, human society, it is claimed, would probably have remained at a primitive level or have degenerated into ceaselessly warring hordes. But like our inner conflict between violent and compassionate impulses, the incoherence between peaceful ends and violent means would remain unresolved. Ashoka’s dilemma is the dilemma of civilization itself. And into this tug-of-war religion would enter too. Since all premodern state ideology was inseparable from religion, warfare inevitably acquired a sacral element. Indeed, every major faith tradition has tracked that political entity in which it arose; none has become a “world religion” without the patronage of a militarily powerful empire, and, therefore, each would have to develop an imperial ideology. But to what degree did religion contribute to the violence of the states with which it was inextricably linked? How much blame for the history of human violence can we ascribe to religion itself? The answer is not as simple as much of our popular discourse would suggest.


Our world is dangerously polarized at a time when humanity is more closely interconnected—politically, economically, and electronically— than ever before. If we are to meet the challenge of our time and create a global society where all peoples can live together in peace and mutual respect, we need to assess our situation accurately. We cannot afford oversimplified assumptions about the nature of religion or its role in the world. What the American scholar William T. Cavanaugh calls “the myth of religious violence” served Western people well at an early stage of their modernization, but in our global village we need a more nuanced view in order to understand our predicament fully.

‘Red terror’ guide to battling extremists

The barbarous terrorist attack against the French satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo marks a turning point, as many have noted, in the campaign Islamic extremists have launched against Western countries. It is significant because it came from people within France, not operatives or immigrants from abroad, as in many past attacks; and because it touched an extremely sensitive nerve with Western countries – freedom of expression – as now Western journalists may feel intimidated by the terrorists’ threats.

Surely, in the past Western journalists were killed, but not in their home countries, in the field in Muslim countries. And attacks in America, Britain, Spain, and elsewhere were aided and supported by local sympathizers, but sympathizing is a step below taking an active part in an attack. The fact that local French boys of Muslim faith planned and carried out this attack without any knowledge of the French intelligence system proves (as reportedhere and here) that large portions of French cities are out of control and virtually in the hands of people sympathetic to the extremists’ cause.
Spengler, in one of the above-mentioned articles, says this is a big problem in France, home to some six million Muslims, about 10% of the population. Even if only 1% of them – some 6,000 people – are sympathetic to the terrorists’ cause, it might provide enough water for some dangerous fish to swim in France, as Mao would have put it. This possibly should be projected on a continental scale. The Muslim population in Europe is over 20 million, and in Great Britain, Germany, Italy, and Spain some urban areas are no better than the Paris suburbs. With no border controls, with trains and highways running freely from the Russian border to the Atlantic shores of Portugal, there is enough water to let dozens of terrorists swim freely.

In this situation, one lesson to draw upon could be the fight against Red terrorism in Italy in the 1970s and 1980s. Then a group of communist extremists tried to push the Italian state into a fierce crackdown against the wave of terror that they had unleashed on Italy. The terrorists hoped their actions would create sympathizers among the large communist population in Italy, which gave about 30% of the total votes to the Italian Communist Party (PCI). The astute reaction of the then-ruling Christian Democrats (DC) was to engage the PCI closely and bring it near to the mainstream power system. The DC also floated the real threat of anti-communist, fascist terrorism, and the risk for Italy and the PCI of falling into a civil war between opposite extremisms.

The PCI, caught in a vise between the temptations of sharing power and the threat of being crushed in all-out crackdown, in turn aggressively helped to isolate the terrorists. This internal strategy was de facto coupled with an external effort by the Catholic Church, “headquartered” in Rome and engaged in supporting the values of freedom in its fight against atheism in Eastern Europe – especially in Poland, with a large Catholic population. This effort in Eastern Europe and the PCI’s decision helped cause the Soviet Empire’s resolve to flag in its efforts to support Italian communist terrorists, something that weakened them.

This large-scale political exertion created the conditions to drain the water where the terrorist fish were swimming, thus allowed intelligence officers to catch the dangerous fish with minimal or no harm to society and to the largely peaceful Italian communist population.

The same effort on a much larger scale must be mounted to turn the tide of extremist Muslim terrorists in Europe and in the world, while knowing that the present phenomenon is in many respects quite different from the old Italian experience.

On a broad scale then, certainly, a massive effort has to be taken by the West as a whole and the European states specifically to integrate and assimilate the growing Muslim minorities. But this is not simple. Resentment among Muslim minorities has many causes, one of which is economic. The European economic downturn is killing millions of jobs, leaving the unemployed to the embrace of militant Muslims – or their opposite, near reflection, the anti-Muslim, racist parties springing up all over Europe, from the British UKIP to the French Marine Le Pen to the Italian Lega Nord, to name a few.

The risk for Europe and for Muslims in Europe and Muslim countries is thus similar to that of Italy 30 years ago: to be swamped by the wave of militant Islam or its opposite, the racist Europe lurking always around the corner, fighting Islam today just as it was persecuting Jews or socialists yesterday.

This double bind may first squeeze and crush moderate Muslims in Europe and then those in Muslim countries, just as a similar vise was doing with the PCI. Realizing this danger, Egyptian President Al-Sisi [1] recently called on Muslim scholars to draw a clear line with war-mongering extremists. This effort is fundamentally important, yet it is still not enough. The discrepancy between tolerant and intolerant societies in the West and in Muslim countries creates two unbalanced environments where both Islamic extremists and Western neo-racists can thrive by pointing to the differences.

Why can Muslims in the West open a mosque next to the dome of Christianity in Rome or near the temples of Buddhism, while Christians, Buddhists, Hindus, and Jews can’t do the same in Mecca? This difference falsely proves to Islamic extremists the strength of their faith and the weakness of the infidels’ faith, and thus provides further ammunition in their fight against the infidels – but first it crushes the moderate Muslims who stand in their way and would like to export the model of European religious tolerance to their countries of origin.

The imbalance in religious environment furthermore helps the spread of Western racist crusaders. They may falsely see religious tolerance in Europe and religious intolerance in some Islamic countries as the reason for the spread of terrorism and thus push for anti-Islamic measures at home and a harder stance against Islamic countries. Then to maintain tolerance for Islam in the West and abroad and prevent a risky slide into religious war, far greater tolerance for the spread of other religions is needed in Islamic countries. That is, in a nutshell: Certainly the West needs to make a greater effort to integrate Muslims into mainstream society, but also only the return of Christians, Jews, Zoroastrians, and Buddhists to what are now Islamic countries can save Islam from being hijacked and destroyed by Islamic extremists.

This will also require a deep recalculation of political pacts in many Islamic countries. Here, many governments have struck an uneasy peace with militant Islamists, trading official neutrality and aloofness toward some of the extremists’ activities for keeping their countries safe from terrorist attacks. This pact, while in the short term it makes their own territory peaceful, in the long term de facto creates greater room for the spread of extremists for the situation explained above. It gives extremists a huge power to pressure many governments towards intolerance, something that breeds more extremism and pushes the radicalization of Islam and loss of clout of government in Muslim countries. This in turn greatly aids in the total hijack of Islam, as religious extremists play the long game and have little or no interest in the short game. So, Islamic countries de facto trade an uneasy peace now for the no-so-distant prospect of an all-out civil war or a massive political and religious hijack of whole countries in the future.

This is something that involves everybody, not only the West. Islam is a global religion, practically no country is without a Muslim presence, and the spread of Islamic extremism is a danger for everybody.

Here comes also a China angle, and not simply because Muslim extremists are threatening the Chinese region of Xinjiang. The initial Chinese reaction [2] of encouraging censorship in the West to avoid provoking Islamists in fact plays into the hands of the terrorists. It tells them: If we push hard enough, the enemies are going to buckle one way or another, by surrendering (giving us what we want: no jokes about Islam) or by launching a total war against Islam (thus proving to moderate Muslims that infidels just want a crusade against Islam). Accepting censorship of papers like Charlie Hebdo (however vulgar and insulting it may be), as the Muslim extremists have asked, means that terrorists have already won, and tomorrow they can intimidate Western governments as they have intimidated rulers in Islamic countries. This intimidation is in fact very hard to carry out in the West, as in the past century it fought two wars – against fascism and communism – for freedom of expression. Then the gates of clash of civilizations would be open with unpredictable consequences and to the satisfaction of extremists.

1. See here
2. See here

Francesco Sisci is a Senior Researcher associated with the Center for European Studies at the People’s University in Beijing. The opinions expressed are his own and do not represent in any way those of the Center.

(Copyright 2015 Francesco Sisci)

Saudi reset with Iran is unavoidable

Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Kham

The terrorist strike last week on the Saudi border post facing the Iraqi province of Anbar — known to be the Islamic State’s first assault on the kingdom — could be the proverbial straw on the camel’s back, forcing Riyadh into a profound rethink of its regional strategies imbued with the rivalries involving Iran.

Tehran has effectively countered the Saudi plots in Syria and Iraq and at the moment would seem to have the upper hand. The last-ditch Saudi attempt to hurt the Iranian economy by forcing a steep decline in oil prices is not only not having the desired effect but, as President Hassan Rouhani explicitly warned yesterday, Riyadh may end up shooting at its own feet (as well as the Kuwaiti brother’s).

However, it is the attack on the Saudi post by the IS (killing two border guards and their commanding officer) that becomes a defining moment. The fact that the IS attackers included three Saudi nationals must be a rude awakening. To be sure, the blowback has begun. The Saudis hope to erect a ‘great wall’ and insulate themselves from the IS barbarians next door but that is sheer bravado.

The security situation in Anbar province, which is held by the IS, is becoming very acute. Tribal disunity combined with the Iraqi forces’ limitations has given the upper hand to the IS, which has let loose a reign of terror to systematically eliminate resistance. A lot of ground work is needed to create an organized tribal resistance to the IS (on the lines of the famous ‘Awakening’ in the last decade in the Sunni regions under US occupation) and it may partly explain the Saudi decision to reopen the embassy in Baghdad after a gap of a quarter century.

But in the ultimate analysis, it is only with a joint effort with Iran that Saudi Arabia can turn the tide of the IS threat to its national security. Riyadh and Tehran seem to be signaling at each other like strangers in the night exchanging glances. The influential Iran Daily commented in an editorial that Iran-Saudi “differences are not so substantial that they can’t be resolved.” It warned that the IS “could jeopardize the system of government in Saudi Arabia” since its “slogans can motivate” people to rise against the regime. The editorial took note that Iran-Saudi cooperation “would bring security and stability to the entire Middle East.”

Of course, the terms of engagement will have to include the question of oil price. Iran Daily admitted that the Saudi decision to increase the crude production leading to the steep fall in oil prices amounts to “using oil as a means to deal a blot to its rival – namely Iran” and “this has created economic problems for Tehran.” Having said that, the editorial also rubbed it in that the Saudis are far from a position today to dictate terms: “King Abdullah’s health is rumored to be deteriorating by the day and reports suggest there is a power struggle among Saudi princes. Mulling over a new system of government might be the way out for the Saudis.”

In the developing scenario, a Saudi rethink on regional strategies is becoming unavoidable. In an opinion piece today in the Saudi establishment daily Asharq Al-Awsat, Prince Turki, former head of Saudi intelligence, was exceptionally harsh on the IS, even rechristening the Da’esh as Fahesh (meaning ‘obscene’) and comparing them with the Kharijites of the seventh century notorious in Muslim Arab story for their barbarity. Such scathing condemnation of an erstwhile progeny only shows that the Saudis may be realizing that the ploy to play the sectarian card against Iran in the power projection in the region has proved costly and counterproductive and is fraught with negative consequences for their own core interests. The best thing for Saudi Arabia will be to remain in the game unfolding by readjusting the policies toward Iran. The US-Iranian nuclear deal will only further tilt the regional balance in favor of Iran. (See my earlier blog Iran trumps Saudi project in Syria-Iraq.)

Posted in Diplomacy, Politics.

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How do we protect Islam from terrorists?

A large number of Muslims do not support terrorism, not as an ideology, not as a nation and definitely not as a matter of faith. But is carrying a personal faith against violence enough?

For how long can we fool ourselves, insisting the terrorists were foreign nationals? That based on their physical (genital) exam, they were all non-Muslims? Some disagreement notwithstanding, most of us I hope will recognise the perpetrators of the Peshawar massacre as Pakistanis. Their picture says it all: sitting relaxed in a row with their guns held out, there are seven of them, all Pashtun looking, all young and all ready to die in the name of God.

Peering through the snapshot trying to read their minds, I am not bothered by their appearance, their beards or their turbans nor their ethnicity, culture or nationality; instead, what bothers me is their mindset, their education (or lack thereof), their training and maybe their religion, all of which may have coalesced in the last three decades to transform an obedient son into a cold blooded murderer, a caring brother into a ruthless suicide bomber and a compassionate friend into a fierce enemy. So brutal was their action in the Army Public School that I wonder if, inside their chests, they carry the same heart as ours, pumping the same human blood we all share. What have we done in our tribal areas and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa? Have we failed as a nation to nurture compassion and promote humanity in our youth? Or is it Islam, since the jihadi groups from Algeria to Pakistan show similar tendencies?

Whether one likes it or not, the terrorists seek inspiration through the same religion we share with each other. We just cannot deny that simple fact. Like them, we proclaim the greatness of the same God before waging a war, offer the same prayers under distress and recite the same verses when we get sick. And just like us they too consult the same Quran and hadith for guidance, follow the same daily rituals of a Muslim and refer to the same fiqh (Islamic jurisprudence) that we abide by, which explains the reason for their demand that the children in Peshawar recite the shahada (testimony that God is the creator and that Muhammad (PBUH) is His prophet) before the terrorists pumped bullets into their heads.

The question therefore is not how similar we are but rather, how we can dissociate ourselves from the terrorists on religious grounds. Is it even possible? Muslims across the world have faced this dilemma since 2001, and what a terrible job we have done in addressing the problem, let alone denouncing it. No doubt, a large number of Muslims do not support terrorism, not as an ideology, not as a nation and definitely not as a matter of faith. But is carrying a personal faith against violence enough? I do not think so.

After 9/11, Muslim clerics had the foremost responsibility to decry terrorism as a political philosophy. They had to unequivocally pronounce the perpetrators of such attacks as non-Muslims irrespective of their personal beliefs. Like their unanimous stand on the consumption of pork in Muslim countries, they should have recommended that states take strict action against the miscreants, requesting common people to stop funding suspicious organisations and forbidding ordinary folks to sympathise with the jihadists. Islam provides them ample evidence to proscribe radicalism. Sure, it can be twisted to justify it but, throughout history, Muslim societies — from the organised insurgency of the Kharjiites to the assassins trained by Hassan Ibne Saba –have fought against such a violent and extreme vision. They still can do that today without compromising their faith. They just need to take the narrative back from the jihadists and guard its original message of peace like they would protect their own personal property.

Nonetheless, except for a few of the ulema (scholars) who took a clear stance on the issue, most clerics did not step up to the task. Their condemnation, if there was any, lacked clarity, their message spewed controversy and their tone emitted apathy as if the people who died in the suicide attack were not humans at all. Because of their meek and contentious response, the 5.8 billion non-Muslim population, almost 83 percent people around the world, believe that somehow Islam condones terrorism if not openly promotes it, an allegation we still cannot defend on religious grounds. It is an example of failure of insight on the part of our clerics.

The ruling elite in Muslim countries should have acted as our second line of defence. However, they manipulated the situation to gain personal objectives. Playing double games, they supported the US stance at the table but under it they continued to empower the rebels. What did they want to achieve through duplicity? As always, their first goal was to extend their undemocratic rule or stabilise it by maintaining the status quo. And their second aim: squeeze the maximum amount of money from the richest country in the world.

Not only religious scholars or state officials, Muslim communities too got their hands dirty by mostly staying indifferent to terrorism. Out of sheer hatred, some of them even celebrated the attack on US soil. They did not realise that the same sword that cuts the throat of their adversaries will one day be swiped at their own children, which it did a few years down the road, killing 40,000 to 50,000 people in Pakistan since 2007. Blinded by our xenophobia, even then we could not challenge the real enemy who continued to build its strength under our very noses until December16, 2014. The question now arises if we will put up a fight this time or let this opportunity slip out of our hands again by calling it an Indian conspiracy.

Syed Kamran Hashmi

The writer is a US-based freelance columnist. He tweets at @KaamranHashmi and can be reached at

An Accomplished Actor

“Do not grieve over someone who changes all of the sudden. It might be that he has given up acting and returned to his true self.” – Socrates

A mother found her little daughter with her hands covered in red lipstick. She hit her for it then went out of the room to find that her daughter had used the lipstick to write on the door: “I love you mama.”

The mother returned and hit her again for messing up the door!

When the mother ignored her daughter’s expressions of love, it was not a natural reaction. Instead, the mother was acting out the role of disciplinarian.

The more a person is natural and free of pretension, the better they are at expressing their true selves.

Dozens of professional comedians conceal an inner state of severe depression, and many of them end up killing themselves. They play the role of happy jovial people, but behind their bright smiles lies profound sadness.

The romantic exchange between a couple during courtship is an act to win the other’s attentions. I play the role that you want me to play so you will play the role that I want you to play. When someone responds to my inner needs by making me feel special and worthy of love, I will respond by playing the role they would have me play.

It is an unspoken agreement, and it is often an unconscious one as well. It results in people making rash, emotional commitments. Falling in love usually contains an element of deception resulting from the ego’s needs being satisfied on some level.

The acted-out roles of lover and beloved often form the basis for young people’s relationships. A small degree of pleasure is given, resulting in many years of regret and conflict.

Sometimes we act out the role of the disinterested party, hoping to console ourselves, but as soon as we hear the beloved’s name or see their face, our buried emotions are brought to the surface again.

Small children sometimes hide their anger from their parents, because they do not feel any emotional warmth from their parent. Small children want their parents to be spontaneous and unpretentious with them. They do not want their parents to merely act out their roles, even if the role itself is a nice one. You may do many things for your children, and that is good, but it is not good enough if you neglect on a genuine personal level who you are and who they are. You are not giving your children a good message if you say: “Because I am your father… because I am your mother… because I am a good example… you must do this or that.”

Why do people spend their lives condemning smoking while having a pack of cigarettes in their shirt pockets?

Why do we bemoan modern technological devices and the way they controls our lives, though we are fully immersed with them all hours of the day? We are acting out the role of the critic and disputant, when all we are really doing is saying: “Hey, I exist.”

People like to cross-examine the motives of others, but the same people get offended if anyone else questions their motives or intentions in turn.

Conflict validates the ego, and it is the reason why people do things believing they are sincere. Shidād b. Aws called this “hidden desire”. For instance, a liberal politician fancies himself to be an advocate of democracy an open dialogue when opinion is moving according to his interests, but when opinion goes the other way, he starts appealing for a crackdown or military intervention. In the same way, an Islamist politician prides himself in being an upholder of people’s rights and an advocate of moderation. However, as soon as he is put to the test, as soon as his professed values conflict with his vested interests, all that goes away.

We might say that our disagreements do not affect our love for each other, but when disagreement actually happens, we are all too often prepared to lash out against each other with ferocity.

One night during a dinner party, a man told Dale Carnegie a humorous story which hinged on a quote from Shakespeare. The man mentioned that the quotation was from the Bible. Carnegie knew, however, that the quotation came from Shakespeare. He tried to correct the storyteller, but the man insisted he was right. As it happened, the man sitting on the other side of Carnegie was an old friend of his who had devoted years to the study of Shakespeare.

Carnegie and the storyteller agreed to submit the question to him. He listened, kicked Carnegie under the table and said, “Dale, you are wrong. The gentleman is right. It is from the Bible.”

On the way home that night, Carnegie confronted him about his response. “You knew that quotation was from Shakespeare.”

“Yes, of course,” he replied. “Hamlet, Act V, Scene 2. But we were guests at a festive occasion, my dear Dale. Why prove to a man he is wrong? Is that going to make him like you? Why not let him save his face?”

Carnegie understood. It thereafter became his policy that the best way to win an argument was to avoid it in the first place.

Prophet Muhammad said: “I guarantee a house on the outskirts of Paradise for someone who gives up an argument even if he is right, and a house in the middle of Paradise for one who abandons lies even when joking, and a house in the highest part of Paradise for one who makes his character excellent.” [Sunan Abī Dāwūd]

It is also related that he said: “Whoever leaves off arguing even though he is right, Allah will build him a house in the middle of Paradise. [Sunan al-Tirmidhī]

The ego does not permit anyone to bring it down. It has its own way of guarding itself against being violated. When someone criticises or insults me, it is taken as an attack on the ego which responds by trying to repair the damage either by constructing justifications and defences for itself or by lashing back with insults against the other party.

It does not matter whether the other party is right or wrong. The ego’s job is to protect the person’s self identity more than reality will allow.

When someone driving a car shouts at you: “You idiot; stupid person!”, it is the unconscious ego seeking to rectify itself through anger. A young man driving a big car ignores the right of way of the driver of a modest car. The other driver is a pleasant person, so he catches up with the young man and says smiling: “Why did you do that? Is it because my car is small? Am I the maid’s son?”

Anger inflates the ego for a short period of time. People can take this to the extreme of violence.

A sense of victimization and self-sacrifice also has a major role to play. It draws on other people’s feelings of compassion and kindness, and it is a way of getting their attention to one’s problems, one’s plights, and one’s suffering. A man sees himself as a victim because he has been physically assaulted or injured emotionally. It could also be because he was brought up to complain.

We sometimes act out a role in order to comfort ourselves. It can be an effective coping mechanism.

You can be more productive and effective if you carry out your work for the sake of the work itself, and not merely as a means to validate yourself.

Getting away from role-play is difficult but important. The most genuine a person gets is the moment when the unbeliever believes and when the person becomes face to face with the journey toward the Hereafter. Is life a stage? Are we the players? Do the masks fall away at the end?

Allah says: “[It will be said]: ‘You were certainly in heedlessness of this, and We have removed from you your cover, so your sight, this day, is sharp’.” [Sūrah Qāf: 22]

In times of crisis and tribulation, the full truth becomes clear.

When you pass away, how will others remember you? What will they say about you? Your ego persists even after death. Someone said that he wanted to have many people attend his funeral, so people can say his funeral has a big audience!

By Sheikh Dr Salman al-Oadah