10 Feb, 2011 A Dozen Bad Ideas for the 21st Century
Here is a list of false beliefs and modes of thought which make it hard for people in the West to come to terms with the challenge of Islam today. If you are deeply attached to any of these ideas or ways of thinking, you will have difficulty accepting the truth about Islam’s teachings and their impact.
- The belief that all religions are the same. They are not. Different faiths make different claims about what is true, and about what is right and wrong and produce radically different societies. The same is true for different political ideologies: consider the different trajectories of North and South Korea. Atheists have helped entrench this belief, because to acknowledge material differences between religions would undermine the atheist (and radical secularist) narrative.
- The belief that religion is irrelevant as a cause of anything. According to this view, religion can be exploited or hijacked as an excuse or an instrument (e.g. of oppression – such as an ‘opiate of the masses’), but not an underlying cause of anything. Marxist ideology has made a significant contribution to establishing this belief. In accordance with this assumption, security analysts all over the Western world presuppose that religion cannot be the cause of terrorism: so they and the politicians they advise must say that terrorists have ‘hijacked’ religion.
- The belief that we all worship the same God. We do not. Thousands of different gods are worshipped by people on this earth. These gods manifest different characteristics, and make different demands. The worship of them forms very different kinds of people and communities.
- The belief that one can justify anything from any sacred text. This is not true. It is a postmodern fallacy that all meaning is in the eye of the beholder. Certain texts lends themselves to supporting particular beliefs and practices much more than others.
- The belief that the Christian Reformation was a progressive movement. This is not true. In fact the Christian Reformers aimed to go back to the example and teaching of Christ and the apostles. Throughout the whole medieval period reformatio always meant renewing the foundations by going back to one’s origins. Understanding ‘reformation’ in this way, Al Qa’ida is a product of an Islamic reformation, i.e. it is an attempt to go back to the example and teaching of Muhammad.
- The belief that dispelling ignorance will increase positive regard for the other. This was the message of Harper Lee’s powerful novel To Kill a Mockingbird (pub. 1960). Although it is true that racial hatred can feed on and exploit ignorance, accurately dispelling ignorance sometimes rightly increases the likelihood of rejecting the beliefs or practices of another. It is illogical to assume that those opposed to a belief are the ones who are most ignorant about it. Ignorance can breed positive regard for what is wrong just as easily as it can breed prejudice against what is good.
- The belief that everyone is good and decent, and if you just make a sincere effort to get to know another person, you will always come to respect them. This is not universally true. Holding this view is a luxury. Those who have experienced life under evil governments or in dysfunctional societies are shocked at the naivety of this assumption.
- The belief that putting something in context will always produce a more innocuous interpretation.This is not true. Attending properly to context can make a text even more offensive than it would otherwise have been. Conversely, if you take something out of context you may regard it more positively than you ought to. In reality, radical interpretations of the Qur’an, such as are used to support terrorism, almost always involve an appeal to a rich understanding of the context in which the Qur’an was revealed, including the life of Muhammad. On the other hand, many have taken peaceful verses of the Qur’an out of context, in order to prove that Islam is a peaceful religion.
- The belief that extremism is the problem, and moderation the solution. Warnings against taking things to extremes are as old as Aristotle. More recently the idea was promoted by Eric Hoffer, in The True Believer (pub. 1951) that mass movements are interchangeable, and an extremist is just as likely to become a communist or a fascist. He claimed that it was the tendency to extremism itself which is the problem. This idea has become very unhelpful and generates a lot of confusion. ‘Moderation’ or ‘laxity’ in belief or practice can be destructive and even dangerous, e.g. in medical surgery or when piloting a plane. Ideas that are good and true deserve strong, committed support, and the best response to bad ideas is rarely lukewarm moderation.
- The belief that the West is always guilty. This irrational and unhelpful idea is taught in many schools today and has become embedded in the world views of many. It is essentially a silencing strategy, sabotaging critical thinking.
- Two wrongs make a right reasoning. E.g. Someone says that jihad is a bad part of Islam, to which a defender of Islam says ‘What about the crusades?’ Someone says the Qur’an incites violence, to which someone else replies ‘But there are violent verses in the Bible.’ This kind of reasoning is a logical fallacy.
A specific sub-type of this fallacy is tu quoque reasoning:
Tu quoque (‘you too’) reasoning: you can’t challenge someone else’s beliefs or actions if you (or your group) have personally ever done anything wrong or have objectionable characteristics. E.g. A Catholic says jihad is bad, but someone counters that popes supported the Crusades. This is a sub-type of the ‘two wrongs make a right’ reasoning: it too is a logical fallacy.
- Belief in progress: everything will always get better in the end. This is a false, though seductive bit of wishful thinking. Bad ideas have bad consequences. Good societies can easily become bad ones if they exchange good ideas for bad ones. Bad situations can last for a very long time, and keep getting progressively worse. Many countries have deteriorated for extended periods during the past 100 years. It is not true that ideologies or religions will inevitably improve or become more ‘moderate’ as time passes, as if by some magical process of temporal transformation. But things are not always going to get better.
Mark Durie is the founding director of the Institute for Spiritual Awareness, a Writing Fellow at the Middle East Forum, and a Senior Research Fellow of the Arthur Jeffery Centre for the Study of Islam at the Melbourne School of Theology.