Thursday, May 7, 2009

Seducing Jihad (5)

Re-Understanding Islam And Jihad

The historical account given earlier was meant to illustrate how religion as a category only exists through an embodied process, just as we have seen how we perceive colors and categories through the workings of the human brain and body. The birth of Islam was a response to the literal cleaning of the idols around and within the Kaabah – in itself has a physical similarity with the Temple of Solomon in Jerusalem. If the ritualistic structures of Islam are itself physical, it is not surprising that the five pillars of Islam is also embodied in nature: that a Muslim must physically perform the five daily prayers, fasts in the month of Ramadhan, provide alms to the poor and perform the physical pilgrimage to Mecca at least once in a lifetime. Even the establishment of the Islamic law (Syariah) is not based on the theological construct of the Quran alone but a large proportion of it was a contextual application to the actual situations occurring in Mecca and Medina. In the present time, when jurists are called upon to make a legal verdict, it is to that same factual method of application that either the principals of ijma’ (juridical consensus) or qiyas (deductive reasoning) was applied. The loss of the Islamic identity and the desperate search to re-establish it (irrespective of religiously valid means) are also a physically embodied experience. Finally, the performance of jihad – be it taken to mean an internal strife or an external declaration of war, is embodied in each and every Muslim.

I will now return to the four main thoughts that the study of colors has lead me. Firstly, just like colors, our environment exists so that we may perceive, translate and understand them. Just as we perceive colors through our translations of “white” distinguishable by wavelengths, the case is also similar to translating religious activities/rituals. Members belonging to the same set of community, religious or otherwise, are conditioned to perceive, categorize and translate their environment in a certain constructed way understood by members of that specific community. To illustrate by using a specific example, the embodiment of and interplay of historical, social and political settings to a certain group of Muslims lead them to translate their predicament in a certain way paving the way for them to answer the call of jihad. Once they situate this particular translation to their personal embodied physical self, it does not matter to them that those calling for jihad has absolutely no religious authority to do so. Muslims answering the call for “jihad” (in light of September 11) see themselves as performing a religious obligation sanctioned by God but scholars of religion and other Muslims translate their acts as categories within Islam, of which they are at liberty to agree or disagree as a matter of discourse. These categories are not intrinsic to the act of performing jihad itself, or as my earlier engagement with the metaphor, color to the object. On its own, jihad holds little meaning beyond a theological philosophy. Once it is awaken and manifested in a devastating act, it assumes existence at tangent with its intended spirit.

Secondly, that there are immense amount of information available out there that our brain are not able to digest them all. Hence, to a large extent, we perform selective perceptions and create categories of our environment and our existence to ‘reduce’ this vast amount of information for a working understanding of their meanings. It is instructive to return to the structure of color and the way we perceive them. There are immeasurable amount of electro magnetic waves in the universe that we cannot understand or fathom. But what our brain can detect is only a meager 0.00037 of wavelength of which there are an astounding ten million variations! That to me is already a marvelous feat for the brain to achieve. Imagine if the brain can actually process all the information available out there in the universe, if at all possible, the brain will be overloaded with too much information that it will break down – akin to the image of a computer heating up and exploding right before our eyes. The idea of selection is at play to make sense of the magnitude of information it can absorb and process so that we can understand them. Just like the structure of color, humans perform this selection process and create categories to make sense of their own reality, for otherwise, everything will be too overwhelming to be decipherable. Just as our brain creates categories (“color”, “smells”, “sounds”) to make priorities, humans are trained to view their world in categories. I can provide a perfect example to illustrate my point: my essay has a title and sub-headings (categories) which guides me in my way of thinking. Out of the many information available on Islam, some Muslims chose to put priorities on performing “jihad” for the “good” of all Muslims by blowing themselves in public places. At a glance, we cannot understand why they rather not choose to put their efforts into other categories such as performing charities or helping the poor. They chose to understand, or their brains are conditioned to attract them to that category, of performing their Islamic obligation by suicide bombing: that is how they find their meaning. 

Thirdly, that we are in a constant state of co-constructing and co-communicating with our environment to continuously make meaning of existence. This may seemed to be a simple point, but the notions around it are fascinating. The concept of neuroplasticity enables us to know the background of our conditioning and determining processes. The malleability of our brain enables us to form and re-shape our ideas through our understanding of our environment, but as Doidge pointed out, it can lead to both rigidity and repetition in our brains – establishing patterns and habits. This may help to explain why certain Muslims are engaging in “jihad” that their “roadblock” shaking their earlier beliefs are re-shaped by the constant drumming into their minds that Muslims are being oppressed, that they have no identity despite a rich history and that they have a valid reason sanctioned by Islam to perform those horrible acts in the name of God. Over time, that indoctrination becomes real for them and once it has established itself, those “habits” are very hard to change. Just like the winter hill experiment, they found identity with the “oppressed” through their engagements and conversations which leads to a certain way of thinking. Surrounding themselves with like-minded people, their perspectives become entrenched as they find their comfort zone with their comrades. Their brain become deeply patterned which then defines them. They find that their common categories reflect their world as it is separate from us and that members of their common category all share the same distinctive trait: suicide bombing as a way to punish others and their death a martyrdom. 

Colors are a constructive category as a tool and its structurality a useful model to understand how jihad is constructed. Colors neither exist in the environment nor do they exist in the eye of the perceiver alone but are constructed out of an interactive process, just like jihad. There are historical elements, there are individual contributions, but only in their interaction does the category of “jihad” really exist. Qutb lapped the opportunity of the Muslim’s social and political condition of that time to re-invent the Islamic identity. Just like Muhammad’s ministry was not borne out of a vacuum, Qutb’s ideology is a perfect example of how he co-constructs the issue of Islamic identity to produce an ideology which was attractive to a certain section of Muslims. Another example is how post September 11, the western media co-construct the notion of peace, direct the agenda for interfaith dialogues and re-packaged Islam even to the Muslims. This richness in a religious understanding is productive as we juxtaposed it with John Dewey’s Theory of Continuity and Interaction that one’s past accumulated experiences influences and interact with the present situation to effect future experiences. With that environment, Qutb not only influenced his generation, but later generations in the form of bin Laden and az-Zahiri.

Finally, that because we are structured biologically in a rather similar way, to an extent, these translations of our environment hold a similar structural understanding which relates and connects us. This finding enables us to explain how Qutb or bin Laden managed to recruit so many followers to their ideology. Although in many ways we are distinct, there are still many ways which connects us – and if sufficient re-shaping is done to a mode of thinking, one may find many people in agreement to a certain translation, perception or understanding of a certain event in history which sparked one to perform suicide bombing. To those who find such ideology/practices perplexing and cannot distinguish between jihad, holy war or terrorism, it may be because we know little or nothing about Islam as we are shaped and habitually constructed in a different way.

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