Following President Ahmadinejad‘s speech at the UN last week, the US mass media has been acting like an old nun who would has caught a glimpse of a naked man. “The horror, the horror!” they cry out. The grotesque President of the deadly Islamic Republic only mused about the possibility that the 9/11 mas murder was an inside American job. He made it a simple hypothesis. What’s the surprise? I bump into people downtown Santa Cruz who will offer all the details of the conspiracy and of the cover-up that followed. Mr Ahmadinejad probably got his information from an American blog anyway.
The kind of world-view that rests on endless conspiracies and on corresponding cover-ups is common everywhere. It’s just more common in the greater Middle-East than it is in Western countries, including this one. The President of Iran and probably, most people in his part of the world, think in terms of hidden causes most of the time. The Shiites of Iran even have a “Hidden Imam” who will come back any day now and set things right.
The fact is that primitive people and children normally live in a magical mental world where things are not what they seem to be. Many otherwise rational Americans, as well as other westerners, have lost even the ability to consider this self- evident truth because of the astonishing triumph of cultural relativism. It’s the doctrine that says that cultures must be considered “on their own terms” that is, non-judgmentally. In other words, all cultures are equal and there is no such thing as “primitive.”
It was no so long ago that the ancestors, both genetic and intellectual, of western rationalists were also magical thinkers. (More on this below.) And, of course, many of our contemporaries, often our own relatives, still live in mental childhood. How else to explain the fact that so many periodicals still publish horoscopes? How about the unlimited claims of many proponents of ill-defined “organic” foods? How about mass hysteria, even among our half-educated class, about global warming? The fact that the same-self half-educated like their magical beliefs robed in scientific garb simply tells you that formal education works, to an extent.
Show them that the leading scientists of the global warming religious movement were caught lying and it does not alter their faith. They are like “Rapture” believers: Come the announced day for the great event; nothing happens; they will just go on waiting for the Rapture. (I ask them if I can have their car.)
Middle-Eastern and Muslim magical thinking does seem to take a particular form though: The delirium of persecution, the instantaneous belief that occult forces cause most of the damage people from that region inflict on themselves. They rear, indoctrinate, motivate thousands of potential terrorists in their schools, in their official textbooks, in Friday sermons. But when a handful of these potential terrorists becomes the real thing, many among them can’t confront the simple fact that actions have consequences. The more reasonable, the more peaceful, the more decent, they are, the more difficult they find it to face this simple fact of life, the greater their propensity to engage in magical thinking. Bin Laden had no trouble admitting to the successful 9/11 mass murder. He bragged about gleefully on video. That’s because he is a blood-thirsty fanatic. On the other hand, my Muslim friends who live in America or France, all people who are easy to like, can’t face the simple facts precisely because they are horrified. It matters little: Someone else did it who was in no way connected with them. Could be the CIA for example. (This kind of allegation always saddens me as an American patriot: I wish the CIA were 1/10 as powerful, as omniscient, as effective, as people of the Middle East give it credit for. No such luck, alas.) Could be Muslims fanatics manipulated by the CIA. Could be Muslims fanatics who don’t understand that Islam is a religion of peace and who were armed by the CIA, once. Or their cousins who were armed. Could even be their neighbors, belonging to a slightly different sect of Islam, who must have been manipulated by the CIA also.
In the meantime, the same Muslims insist quietly on the unity of the umma, the community of Muslims world-wide. That could be why I don’t hear them condemn the thousands of atrocities Muslims commit against other Muslims all the time. (Think Darfur.) That could be why you never hear a Muslim voice mention the salvation of Muslim Bosnians and of Muslim Kosovars, entirely by American and Western European military intervention in the Balkans during the 90s. Saying anything at all about these recent events would raise the obvious question: Where were the Muslim saviors of Muslim Bosnians and of Muslim Kosovars?
In the meantime, it’s fiendishly difficult to prove that the CIA did not help or manipulate this or that group. It’s difficult because no one can prove a negative. It’s difficult, additionally, because the CIA, and most US administrations, don’t mind at all the legend of the agency’s all-around efficacy. Our government thus helps maintain the people of the Middle East in their mental infancy. I am not referring here to Middle-Eastern infants, to children, but to adults you would expect to know better, at least superficially. Here are two anecdotes drawn from my own life about knowing better.
A couple of weeks ago, I was talking with a friend of mine who was raised in the near-Middle East. She is a woman in her mid-thirties with two advanced degrees, one from her country of origin, one from a good California university. Both her degrees are in subject-matters most people would consider difficult because they require above-average intellectual rigor. Though from the Middle-East, this well-educated woman is not a Muslim, yet her first language is a Middle-Eastern language. A propos of nothing, she told me she believed 9/11 was an inside job. Perplexed, I asked her why she thought so.
She averred it was because “not a single Jew” had died in 9/11 although New York has a large Jewish population. Later I sent her a list of names of victims. It included many names who are probably but not certainly Jewish, such as “Goldberg,” and names like “Shapiro” that must be Jewish. (Go ahead, ask yourselves how many Roman Catholics, how many Hindus are called “Shapiro.”) She had no reaction.
Later, I asked that same young woman why the US government would commit such a crime, for what purpose? She asserted without hesitation that it was to facilitate the invasion of Iraq. When I remarked that it would then have made more sense to make at least a few of the terrorists (in her book, CIA agents) Iraqis, she had no reaction. Nobody is perfect, she may have thought, not even the CIA!
This woman is a well-educated US citizen who has lived in this country for a long time and who likes it here. No bitter immigrant, she! She just relies on the tools of analysis that she is used to.
Another friend of mine was raised a Muslim, in another Middle-Eastern country, but he came to the US as a teenager. He has good mastery over the languages and, , I think, over the cultures of two different Middle-Eastern countries. In his daily life, he is an unusually perspicacious man. He had an even better take on 9/11: He confided that he too thought it had to be an inside job. He just did not see how Arabs would have the foresight, the planning ability, the discipline, and the raw personal courage to conduct that fairly complex endeavor to term!
As I said earlier, none of this should surprise us because we used to be them. In the later 12th century, the perennially badly outnumbered Crusaders lost in battle what they thought to be a piece of the “true cross” on which Jesus died. From that point on, they also lost heart for fighting Saladin. A few years later, they also lost Jerusalem over which they had maintained a dominion, against impossible odds, for 90 years.
In a handful of Western countries that include the US, as an heir and as a participant, it took several centuries for a determinedly rationalist upper-class to emerge. The movement took those countries through the Renaissance, the Protestant Reformation and the Enlightenment. (Civil authorities in Europe took charge of burning witches until the beginning of the 18th century.)
Note the modesty of the claim I make above: A rationalist upper-class emerged and ran those countries most of the time. It’s not clear the the mass of the people ever became rationalists, ever abandoned childish magical thinking. It’s not clear how close to the rational surface this magical thinking remains. What is clear is is that there were major setbacks, at the societal level. Nazism was a dramatic instance of magical take-over. Communism was too, toward its end, when anyone who cared could see that it was a monstrous failure in precisely what it had promised to deliver: material abundance.
“I am still a Communist,” said Gorbachev. That was the Soviet leader whose role was paramount in dismantling Communism in Europe! And, of course, there are outbursts of magical thinking in the most mature Western countries on the occasion of important elections
The Middle-East has not gone through anything like the Renaissance, not for centuries, at least. It has experienced nothing like the Reformation and even less anything like the Enlightenment. There is no reason to expect even its leadership in general to have abandoned puerile magical thinking. It’s so deeply ingrained that doing anything with them along the line of the strict rationalism we try to follow is almost silly. It would be easier to make them like us and thus, to appeal to their tribal instincts which are entirely compatible with magical thinking.