"Fundamentalism cannot be dismissed simply as extremism: it is a force as powerful as communism once was, and it represents a not dissimilar reply to injustice and bewilderment. The more fundamentalists are repressed, the more they feel excluded. Their rejection of dialogue is based on the conviction that they are not understood" (Theodore Zeldin, "An Intimate History of Humanity", London, Vintage Books 1995, pp 455-456 )
Introduction - when there is just too much to take in - the causes of bewilderment
During the few days that I was writing this essay I was also drawing up a list of topics for a Teach In on all the dimensions of the crisis unleashed by the World Trade Centre attacks. The list of topics became longer and longer. I am employed 3 days a week so I am able to look into some of these issues in my spare time. However, I began to wonder how on earth most people could ever possibly find the time and energy to understand all the many consequences of the crisis. Yet, it is clear that many people have already died because of this crisis. It is being demanded that people take sides. I think this tells us something about the roots of fundamentalism.
Every human being is faced from time to time with the deep dilemma of having to take a stand, to take sides, to make life or death decisions, usually with very little time to explore the issues that underlie the stand they must make. One is bounced to adopt a point of view, and to adopt a course of action, on issues that one knows little about. It can lead to huge feelings of insecurity and inadequacy. One response is to react from the gut feeling that our already- existing community belief systems provide the answers. We can react from the conviction that, the problems that we are confronted with, have arisen because people in other communities have adopted different systems of belief, and are therefore following wrong courses of actions. Rather than explore the issues we say, in effect: we are right and they are wrong. Loyalty simplifies.
These, in italics, are the issues that we would probably need to cover in order to properly understand the current crisis (if you have a few years spare - skip the list if my point is already clear enough for you):
(1) The crisis and UK community relations - including refugee and anti-fascist politics; (2) The history of UK and US involvement in the Middle East and Arab/Islamic World; (3) Understandings of fundamentalism and the dialogue/relationships between communities of belief; (4) Oil in the Politics and Economics of this crisis - incl. Location of major reserves, oil depletion issues and energy efficiency political-economic strategies; (5) The role of the arms industry - who has an economic interest in war, rearmament and the world economic crisis?, weapons technologies - e.g. Depleted Uranium weapons and environmental pollution; (6) Gender Issues - e.g. the Burka, Saudi polygamy, the 'decline of western morality' as an aspect of fundamentalist thought, women's movements fighting back in Afghanistan - the RAWA - etc.; (7) Key country discussions: (a) Afghanistan - recent history including the disintegration of Afghani society during successive wars, the forthcoming famine etc., (b) Saudi Arabia - Wahhabism, The Royal Family and Sharia law, Saudi Arabia in World Politics and Economics, (c) Iraq - history of the regime and its conflict with Britain/USA, the public health crisis in Iraq; (d) Palestine and Israel and the Middle East crisis - is there a way out?;(e) Pakistan - rogue nuclear state or friendly military dictatorship? (8) Dirty wars and covert operations - the role of the CIA, the Pakistani ISI etc. in generating the current crisis; (9) Peace methodologies (1) goals: (I) peace/reconciliation strategies developing international institutions and development programmes vs. (ii) Class struggle approaches for socialism vs. (iii) radical religious strategies to create radical religious states; (2) means - 'information wars', the use of the Internet as a free flow of information, development programmes e.g. 'Green development programmes' working with refugees etc. etc.
Once we have sorted all that out we might perhaps be well qualified to say what should be done..... Unfortunately, however, we probably have to decide many things now. For example, we may want to decide: should we go an anti-war demonstration next weekend?....To lack enough information, to lack a full range of interpretations, to lack a full repertoire of responses before we have to act, is part of the human condition.
Actually it is even worse than this. For to explore the issues on my list will reveal that each of the topics, taken on its own, is itself huge. If you want to understand anything you have to study it - but, when you do, you find there is always something more to learn. Apparently small issues are revealed as being more and more complicated than you ever thought, until you come back to the discovery that the universe is infinite and you are finite.
You discover that you will never finally know "the whole picture" - except, maybe, if the Buddha was right (if he was) when you dissolve back into the universe from whence you came at the time of your death, or maybe, if the Sufis are right, when, through the ecstasy of the dance, you get a taste of union with an infinite God from whom you have been separated....
Because you do not have enough information you cannot ever quite know for sure what is right and wrong. To be human, said the Sufi poet Rumi (1207-83) is to be confused, distraught, in pain, in love, unable to know what is right or wrong - but there was no need to wallow in suffering. Through music and dance there is a chance to understand what really matters. (Zeldin p 451)
Oh hear the flute, how it does complain/ And how it tells of separation's pain
The Taliban it seems, have a diametrically opposite viewpoint and so do many Saudi Muslims. Mohammed Ibn Abd al-Wahhab (1703 - 1793) lived very close to what is now the Saudi capital Riyadh. He preached a "back to the strict source" version of Islam - with no music apart from drumming, no decorative elements, draconian measures against alcohol consumption and any other modernising influences. It was his version of Islam that was taken up by the current regime of Saudi Arabia.
However, the idea that Islam is, as such, inevitably intolerant is wrong. Mohammed, the Messenger of God to Muslims, recognised that there would always be situations not directly covered by the holy texts. Thus, making up one's mind about what was right and wrong, and what one should do, would be difficult. As Zeldin puts it "Jihad means not only war but effort. There was another kind of effort which was also encouraged - itjihad, which meant that the faithful were required to work out individually how they should behave in matters not directly covered by the holy texts. Those who studied the Koran and did their best to form their own opinions were assured of a reward by the Prophet, even if they were wrong. Divergences (ikhtilaf) were declared to be allowed by Allah by Abu Hanifah (700-67), one of Islam's greatest jurists, founder of the school of law which has the largest following of all; and three other schools of law, though different, were considered to be all equally legitimate. A time came when theologians demanded that the age of personal judgement (itjihad) should be closed, because their accumulated judgements had settled all possible uncertainties. But others insisted that it should remain open. Ibn Taymiyya (1263-1328), for example, though he inspired conservative forms of Islam, pointed out that a Muslim was obliged to obey only God and his Prophet, not ordinary mortals; each had the right to give his opinion 'within the limits of his competence'. Both he and Abu Hanifah spent time in prison because other Muslims rejected their views. Schism and disputation have been a permanent part of Muslim History" (Zeldin, pp 449-450)
Schisms and disputations are an inevitable feature of any belief system. No matter how comprehensive, the founders of political, religious and other belief systems cannot foresee all the circumstances of history. Their ideas cannot provide all the answers in advance. As history evolves, their followers split and dispute about how to adapt the beliefs to new situations that were never foreseen.
Others react in exasperation the other way. As the world changes in bewildering ways, as all the old certainties with which they have grown up seem to be under threat, some people react by claiming that all the problems are because people have had their horizons widened, because children have been misled by new and untried ideas, because the old values and beliefs have been neglected, because the abominations of the new are corrupting the certain truths and beliefs that they already know. That is as true for Christian fundamentalists and Muslim ones. It is true too, in a different way for Marxists who cannot, or dare not, accept that their ideas are not relevant. It is true for economists and politicians trapped in the dogmas of neo-liberalism and the unrestrained market. Doubtless it is true too for Green activists like me - who suddenly find our belief systems must find a space for a dialogue with religions and political-economic ideas over questions, and places, we never paid much attention to before, and know little about.
Suddenly, we find that we are not the expert that we thought that we were.
As the world changes in ways which make people feel insecure for their jobs and livelihoods, for their land, for their communities and for their lives and security, people struggle to find systems of ideas for their collective orientation. Alongside the ethical questions, questions about what I as an individual should and can do, are questions about what the community, of which I am a part, should and can do.
Every society and every community has to have a means for measuring out the distribution of income, work, land, taxes and the like between its members. Every society must also ask how it is going to regulate its dealings with strangers, outsiders and foreigners. To guide us in these questions we have an idea of what is "reasonable" in the regulation of socio-economic and political affairs. "Rationality" and "reason" are words which come from the Greek. In their original meaning these words also meant "in the right proportions" as will be noticed when one sees the words "ratio" and "ration" in the word "rationality" (i.e. rationality means in the right ratio). What a society considers 'reasonable' is closely related to what a society considers 'just and 'ethical'. Ethics comes from 'ethos' what we think is the appropriate normal pattern, which we use as our benchmark. We think we recognise 'injustice' because it is a 'disproportionate' allocation of resources and/or a disproportionate response to situations which are perceived as problems.
Unfortunately what is considered to be "proportionate and disproportionate" tend to be defined by those comfortable people who have a lot for those who have virtually nothing. This is as true in our domestic affairs as in our foreign affairs. People who have virtually nothing then find it more and more difficult to manage their habitats, their relationships and their lives within their incomes and their work becomes onerous and burdensome. They find themselves denied the resources that they had before. Moreover they are told they are being 'unreasonable' and 'irrational' when they groan and explode under what they see as a mounting injustice.
For relations between people to be harmonious then there must be proportion and limit both in the narrower pattern of personal relationships and in the broader pattern of economic, social and political relationships. A stable measured pattern of equality in society will never be possible but it will usually be possible to see whether in our individual lives, and in society in general, we are witnessing a move towards, or away from, greater social equality and social justice. A move away from personal and social justice, and towards inequality and disempowerment, usually brings in its train greater conflicts, personal and social ills and results in misery and suffering.
This is now happening on a world scale - because substantial sections of the world's population are living in hell and are crying out for justice.
A general account of the impact of the present regime on underdeveloped countries is given by the Peruvian diplomat Oswaldo de Rivero in The Myth of Development.
"The history of the majority of the countries of Latin America, Africa and Asia, since their independence, has merely recorded a gradual process of dysfunction and global marginalisation.
"At the end of the twentieth century, the world really consisted, aside from the 24 developed countries, of more than 140 non-developed countries and of only 4 developed 'newly industrialised countries' (NICs): two city states (Singapore and Hong Kong) and two small countries (South Korea and Taiwan). These constitute only 2% of the population of what the experts have been calling, for the last forty years, the 'developing world'. The four are the only cases in which it is possible, despite the financial crisis of 1997, to verify a significant technological modernisation of production and of exports, a continuous process of income redistribution and a significant shift of population from the poor to the middle class, nearly comparable to what happened first in the United States and Europe, and later in Japan. In spite of such progress, these NICs are far from enjoying the scientific, technological and cultural development and the standard of living - and, even less, the democratic development - of the United States and Europe."
Many African and Asian countries, de Rivero says, have failed to 'develop' and now have severe problems. He lists 37 countries which he calls nonviable national economies (NNEs).......In the countries with nonviable economies, the majority of the population lives in a hell, a small middle class lives in purgatory, and only a handful enjoy the paradise of a consumer economy, with instantaneous gratification. Afghanistan is one of these countries in hell.
People who are living in hell, people actually with the same feelings as you and me, naturally look for answers. Mostly, because of their poverty, they do not have the time, the education, the economic and political connections, the resources or information to look for deep solutions. What then happens is that other discontented people from their national and/or belief communities, who are rather better off, come to articulate their cause.
These articulators of anger and dissent are also only human beings. They too inevitably resort to the ideas and belief systems with which they have grown up. Typically, they find the explanation for what is wrong in their religious heritage.
Religions and Social Justice
The social justice message is often the explosive ingredient at the beginning of religions. The word religion comes from the Latin word religare, meaning to bind, and religion is traditionally that which most deeply binds tribes and groups together into a bigger group - a society. For centuries it has been religions that have provided the underpinning for the cultural codes of civilisations. Religions act like the compass and maps for the people of a civilisation. They provide collective orientation for everyone. The holy texts lay down the collective ethos, the norms and moral codes to guide individual and collective action.
From time to time in history an old collective ethos breaks down, perhaps as part of a clash of civilisations and there is then mass suffering. At this time the cultural codes that go with new religions can seem to provide a way of overcoming the divisions, the chaos and the states of mass discontent. If that then happens they spread rapidly and explosively as millions of people see the new religious ideas as a solution for their problems.
Let us look at Islam as an illustration of this. While Mohammed was based at Mecca he was an outsider who heard the voice of Allah in prophetic visions but could make no headway at all in getting his voice heard. He was followed by a mere handful of people. He was considered possessed, his ideas were considered a weird bundle of dreams. According to Islamic history on 16th July 622 Mohammed moved to Medina. The Medinans was a place of bitter feuds and disputes between the two rival Arab clans. Mohammed now changed his tack and provided a body of ideas that bridged the rift between the communities. Whereas in Mecca his revelations were about things like the Last Judgement, in Medina they were about the organisation of everyday life - the duties of property owners, relationships with women (very progressive at this time), interest on loaned money, alcohol. It was a religion in which God laid down everything to the smallest detail - from what to do with thieves, to cleaning your teeth and washing your hands after sex. Within ten years not only had Mohammed cleaned up Medina but had developed a dynamic and growing community whose explosive development changed the course of world history.
Rituals in the development of group identity
Laying down the new rules or ethos is only part of creating a new belief community. Particularly important in the development of any group identity is the construction of common rituals. These are common regular events in family, and/or community, life which regularly re-create, over and again, the features of the family and community as a unit - its beliefs, its pleasures and its values. Many of these rituals take place through meals, but not only through them. Family and community rituals can be celebratory, enjoyable or serious- as, for example, birthday parties or wedding anniversary rituals, a regular weekly trip to the countryside, a visit to a club or the regular attendance of a church service. But rituals may also be negative - e.g. regularly picking on a family scapegoat at each meal.
Rituals can also bind together bigger communities and whole societies. The creation of a common regular event becomes part of the new moral code for a culture. Our norms, our ethics arise from what is supposed to be normal - the regular pattern. These help form our "mental constructions about society" - the way we assume things to be in the normal course of things. In the common meal the early Christians created the repeated basis for their community organisation through a ritual meal, the communion. Organising to eat together when food was scarce created a powerful social organisation for the poor in an unstable world. It was a form of social organisation, whose full significance was that it was a way of keeping the poor alive. Christ's message "Take, eat, this is my body" probably meant, in effect, "we are what we eat". His paradise, on earth, was a place where people would eat and drank (at the table of their God). This original significance was later forgotten as Christianity got absorbed by the ruling elite of the Roman Empire. Some members of the elite were attracted to the compassion and sincerity of the new movement. However, for the elite, having something to eat was not the big central issue that it was for the underclass. They had more than enough. The communion then became a ritual that became an entirely symbolic event. (This analysis is largely taken from Ludwig Feuerbach and Karl Kautsky).
Likewise Mohammed laid down a set of social regulations as regular observances and rituals that providing the basis for a community. Islam was different from Christianity in some vital respects. Christianity's radical roots in the underclass were depleted as it was absorbed into the Roman imperial elite over the centuries. By comparison Mohammed's revolution started out with him achieving a military-political dominance - which remained a feature of his civilisation as it expanded.
In any religion with a God, the relationship to God can be immensely important for holding and bringing people together. The cosmic force on the side of the believers helps them find the strength, the sense of self sacrifice and the heroic effort to pull off the fight for social and cultural transformation. Caught in the swamp there is a need for something you can hang onto, something to believe in, something more important and powerful than yourself. Thus, when Mohammed developed his formula for a world religion (or wrote down the Revelations of Allah) it was full of such routines that wove together the cosmic vision with the routines of everyday life. Believers bring up their children to memorise the Koran. Prayer is a routine daily occurrence. Once a year people fast during daylight hours for a month. Once in a lifetime one makes a pilgrimage to Mecca. Thereby the religion was integrated into the texture of each single day, into the span of the individual years and into the length of life itself. When millions were following similar the same pattern a world community inevitably developed.
This Islamic civilisation developed for several centuries and, at its peak, in the tenth century AD, it was remarkably generous and tolerant to outsiders. The Brothers of Purity of Basra wrote in the tenth century that 'The ideal and perfect man should be of East Persian origin, Arabic in faith, of Iraqi i.e. Babylonian education, a Hebrew in astuteness, a disciple of Christ in conduct, as pious as a Syrian monk, a Greek in individual sciences, an Indian in the interpretation of all mysteries, but lastly, and especially, a Sufi in his whole spiritual life" (quoted in Zeldin p. 456)
Perhaps, however, it is inevitable that, in their heartlands, empires at their peak are tolerant. In the heartlands the people are comfortable, at peace, they want to enjoy their good fortune and live the good life. Comfortable people can find it easier to be generous, at least in their words. They want to be liked. At the borders, however, others look in with envy and with anger - perhaps, as in our time, seeing some of their poverty as deriving from the economic burdens and limits imposed from the imperial centre, seeing too, a gulf between the words from the centre of power and the harsh rapacious realities. For them the reality is not in the words but in the troops, the gun boats, the bombers and the rockets. Communities clash.
History, said the Italian Giambattista Vico (1668-1744) is like a cyclical process. The storia ideal' eterna goes through these stages: (1) The times of the gods - all power lies in the hands of the Gods and religion (2) the time of the heroes who come to rule at the point of a sword and (3) the time of people - as people develop their self confidence and free themselves of the God, free themselves of the hero cults and put their trust in their own abilities. However, finally the society loses itself in its luxury and disintegrates (ricorso) with a new wave or barbarian attacks.....until a new time of the Gods as a new religion creates order out of the chaos......
If we are to break out of this storia ideal' eterna then we shall need some new thinking - one which people develop their self confidence and abilities in down to earth solutions for world poverty and the world environment. To do that we must be able to be critical of our own cultures and our own communities. We must find ways of overcoming our closed mindedness - but this is not as easy as it seems.
Closed Mindedness - my country/my community/my belief - right or wrong
The opposite of fundamentalism is helping people become more critical and independent of all the groups that they belong to - recognising that working and living in groups is inevitable, necessary and, usually beneficial, but recognising that, nevertheless, there is a benefit in helping individual group members understand better the terms and consequences of their participation in their own group. This is part of becoming more aware of ourselves as individuals - of how our minds and relationships work. It might help prevent people act precipitously and unthinkingly in what I shall call 'group stampedes'. It might help hinder people having their thinking taken over completely by their own group and 'locked in' by that group.
In thinking and dealing with other people individuals can only know, intimately, a narrow circle of immediate family and friends. Beyond that the 'people we know' are only acquaintances - whose basic responses we can, at best, only guess at. Beyond that again, are other people we do not know personally at all - only their media-ted presentations in newspapers, on radio or TV. When it comes to other people in other communities and cultures, we know even less - and, indeed, we tend to put up blinkers to knowing those other people. This is almost inevitably so. It is a condition of fundamentalism as communities polarise
Fortunately some people make the effort to understand others. There will always be individuals who have a curiosity about the stranger which is strongly linked to sympathy and a generosity of spirit. Sometimes these are the most surprising and unlikely of people. Take for example the Viennese woman Ida Pfeiffer (1797-1858). According to Theodor Zeldin, in his Intimate History of Humanity (Vintage Books, 1998 edition), she seemed to her neighbours to be a "staid, practical housewife, 'lacking in outward charms' forced to marry a widower 24 years older than herself, who proceeded to lose his fortune; but after painfully bringing up her children she found a new life as a traveller....On her own with minimal savings she circled the globe twice over, visiting lands where no European had been before her - a diminutive, unthreatening elderly lady, possessing nothing but a 'talent for awakening and profiting from the sympathy of those she came into contact with'.(p 312 ).
Today there are millions of such ambassadors for a new world based on mutual interest and tolerance. But they have a hard time of it - inevitably so. Again and again we find ourselves as individuals working, as part of groups, against other groups and communities. I belong, for example, without much enthusiasm, to a group called 'the British'. It is not something I can easily and practically opt out of.
When people work together in groups (in communities, in nations, in teams etc.) they develop group identity, team spirit, patterns of loyalty, patriotism - this is the feelings of commitment of individuals to the common purposes of the group - whether these purposes be scoring more goals, capturing markets from rival companies and nations, converting or annihilating unbelievers. Group purposes, and the ideologies of justification that go with them, it seems, are an inevitable fact of human evolution - the problems arise where the purposes of different groups collide with each other. Fundamentalism is when group loyalty hardens and becomes dogmatic.
I know from my own personal experience that, once in a group, individuals can find it very difficult to think independently. It is difficult not to behave as part of a group and not to be swayed by the dynamics of that group, including participating in immensely destructive 'group stampedes'. (This is, of course, a metaphor - although if you have ever been involved on a demonstration that becomes violent there are times that the metaphor becomes a tangible reality).
The groups that we live in often set great limits to what we dare to think, what we allow ourselves to consider. To fit in with groups (nations, classes, social networks, political parties etc. ) we put barriers up in our heads against being critical of them.
There are mental barriers at, and between, the edges of warring communities and between the belief systems of those communities, that seem to be impossible to cross over. People would rather kill, and die for, the maintenance of their beliefs rather than adopt another way of thinking.
I invite you, indeed 'I dare you', to think about what would happen if you abandoned some of your key beliefs. Let us say that, as a reader of a right wing newspaper you started reading a left wing one, or vice versa. Let us say, as an atheist, you started reading the Catholic World. Now let us imagine that you start living out the new beliefs that you found there.
This would not be easy. To explain why I give here a personal story.
'Locked in' ideas in a political sect
Many years ago I was in a far left political sect and, from this experience, I have developed a concept about how people think with "locked-in ideas". It is because of 'locked-in ideas' that people find it so difficult to leave religious or political sects once they are firmly integrated into them. In the political sect that I was a part of, all my main relationships and the routines of my life were tied up with learning, discussing, fostering and promoting the message of our sect. This message was about world revolution 'under our leadership' because, you see, we believed ourselves to have ' a higher level of consciousness' than other people.... Therefore, mostly, the many other ideas, interests, activities and influences that were available outside this daily life of promoting the class struggle, outside our sect, were only available if they were reinterpreted to fit our message, or if these other influences were first evaluated as to how far they helped, or hindered, the pursuit of the primary purpose, which was 'to promote the revolution'. Thus, lots of ideas that I have since found enlightening, were inaccessible to me (and to the other 'comrades'. ). They were ignored or denigrated with various 'boo words' like 'bourgeois ideology', 'psychologism', 'decadent' 'empiricism', 'eclecticism' etc.
If individuals in the political sect had adopted these bad ideas, we would be admitting that we didn't have that 'higher level of consciousness' at all. It would have tacitly been an admission that we were merely fallible people like everyone else - and had much to learn from everyone else. In any case it was expected that, as individuals, we worked hard for the revolution - so there was never much time to look at other ideas - let alone to play in the park on nice summer days when we were in our meetings.
Were I, at that time, to have adopted these other ideas as an individual, and to have used them in my life, I would, in effect, be on the road to 'political excommunication'. It would have meant being expelled from, or 'dropping out' of 'the revolutionary party'. Then, without its 'protection' for my thought processes, my ideas would 'degenerate' and, as the story went, I would not be able to stand up against the pressures to compromise. I would 'opportunistically' bend to the temptations and the viciousness of bourgeois society. To be excommunicated from the club of believers would have meant losing, not only my certain ideas, but my life purposes, my identity, a compass for my day to day mental life. It would also have meant the loss of certain routines of daily life with its newspaper sales, its meetings, its conferences and its demonstrations. In effect, I would have lost most of my relationships. I would be seen by everyone, in that strange party political substitute for a family life, with all those people who meant anything to me, as a betrayer of the 'liberation of humanity'. (sects always wrap themselves up with the finest of words and self descriptions). I would, in short, lose virtually everything, internally and externally.
I was, in other words, a political fundamentalist.
The more time, energy and attention that I devoted mentally and socially to this movement, the more I had to lose if I dropped out. I had no life outside of it. No way of thinking about the world other than its way of thinking about the world. No friends other than in 'the party'. No regular activities. Yet I did drop out - and I went insane. My mind shrivelled to the play fantasies that I had had as a child, and a memory of the incoherent terrors and thought patterns of a pre-verbal infant. ( Psychologists call this 'regression' as your extreme insecurity and isolation takes you back to childhood attempts to cope with fears and childhood thought patterns)
Before I dropped out I pushed whatever doubts I had to the margins of my thought. Talking to me at that time was futile because I was not open minded. I did not dare make up my own mind about things. I was not my own person. Like everyone else who is 'locked in' (mentally) by a sect, community, party, denomination, faith, business organisation, social network, club, family, mafia, secret service, I used the common mental techniques of self censoring and policing my thought processes. When, for example, I had access to a text that I did not dare open my mind to, I would scan-read it - in order to find the bits that I recognised that we, the party, already had a point of view on. These were the bits of the text that I already knew that "I" disagreed with. Then I would tell myself that this text must be wrong to have such things ideas in them - I had already seen those ideas refuted in our party's literature so I could put those critical ideas aside - never to read them. (Perhaps you've heard of these ideas - under the term of 'cognitive dissonance'. So you don't need to read further do you? You can put the rest of this essay aside and ignore it........)
What we know is a often a compromise with what we dare to know
I now believe that the overwhelming majority of all communities make their minds up in much this way about most things - almost all we "know" is, at best, a compromise with what we dare to know - because to be totally open minded means to relinquish the security and therefore advantages of sect, community, party, denomination, faith, business organisation, social network, club, family, mafia, secret service.....Each of them has their own system, their own way of seeing the world. Inside these groups, any other way of thinking seems impossible and unworkable. What is more, without the security of "group think", most people do not even have a clue where they might start working out a viewpoint all of their own - indeed, how could they?
Nevertheless, over and again, our group-think frameworks let us down. After you have left them, years later, you realise you were in a mental prison, with blinkers on. But leaving them is difficult - because you also need a life package outside your mental prison - i.e. A coherent mix of occupation, income source, work and emotional relationships, habitat, and the new life purposes, meanings and orientation to go with these. This can only be put together in a slow, step by step way....
A national culture as a mental prison - locked into 'Britishness'
Meanwhile, everyone likes to think that they are objective, reasonable and live an ethical life. So we make ourselves feel good about ourselves in what we choose to see, where we choose to look, what we choose to remember, what we choose to forget, what we choose not to remember, and what we choose not to think. In life, and in community conflicts, there is always enough horror, enough history, enough events, for both sides of any conflict to find justifications they want for whatever they want to do. Of course, "we British" have never been any better than anyone else. We too are "locked in" our beliefs about ourselves like any other community. What we call 'our love of country' is rooted in the comfortable feeling we have with all those day to day things with which we are familiar. These have a "must be right" feel to them. Here is a slightly antiquated quote which expresses this in regard to "Britishness":
We British live with "...all the characteristic activities and interests of a people. Derby Day, Henley Regatta, Cowes, the 12th of August, a cup final, the dog races, the pin table, the dart board, Wensleydale cheese, boiled cabbage cut into segments, beetroot in vinegar, 19th Century Gothic churches, the music of Elgar..."(T.S. Eliot, Notes Towards a Definition of Culture quoted in Dick Hebdidge Subculture. The Meaning of Style 1979 p. 7). If we think that our Englishness is superior then all these familiar things become proof of our superiority. When Norman Tebbit, a member of a former British conservative government, wanted to put black migrants and their children to a cultural loyalty test it is a cricket test, which team do they support.
Other cultures then come to seem, in their lack of familiarity for colonising white people, as somehow exotic. We look at the interesting different pictures of gods and goddesses or religious symbolism, different clothes styles, different foods, initially we might gawp in the way a tourist would before he reaches for his camera, but after a while this culture somehow seems strangely improper, not quite right, it isn't British, it isn't quite our cup of tea.
When any child, in any culture, is small, it is no more familiar with the meanings and cultural codes of 'its own' society than of any other. Children the world over have to learn these cultural codes and patterns and this learning is often a painful process. In Britain the place of knives and forks on the table, and how to use them, is something that we must learn. Our ignorance of these things goes together with our smallness and vulnerability. In later life, if we British travel abroad, and if we are obliged to use chopsticks, or our fingers, we feel the same foolishness and uncomfortableness that our parents might have made us feel when they patronised our inadequacy to use a knife and fork.
We had to learn the meanings of our culture: that a suit is the way that a British gentlemen dresses, that the plumes in the imperial governor's hat do not have the same significance as those of the Red Indian chief. Not so long ago clean shaven men in bowler hats were normal on the commuter trains to London and that the bowler meant a city gent. Not so long ago we learnt that the vicar in the Church dresses up in funny clothing but this is quite normal and that we should not comment aloud about it during the sermon, for, if we did, we suddenly became extremely uncomfortable.
This world of meanings we acquire, sometimes very uncomfortably, and we want to flee from the childhood memory of the time when we were vulnerable because we did not have these points of reference. But to observe a foreign culture, in particular a non-European one, other than as exotic, is to observe just such a world where we have no points of reference to help us find our way without embarrassment and humiliation. We do not know what the symbols mean, how to put on the dress. We do not know what the language means, nor its deeper structures of cultural meaning. If we did want to find out more we would have to become as little children - we would be 'pupils' in such a culture. We cannot accept this status - so we get tourist guides who speak in our language, we go to hotels where we eat our own food, we dress as we normally dress - and we take photos of the people in 'their costumes' (as if our own clothes were not costumes made chain stores). We reject the very idea of learning or being interested - we distance ourselves from what we see with a nausea which is actually the transferred feeling of how we were made to feel as children as we were socialised into white culture, feelings we are not willing to experience again, preferring to take snaps shots and distancing ourselves in our feelings of 'normality'. This means implicitly that our culture is the norm - and that carries the further implicit meaning that our culture is the superior one.
Locked into into a Mickey Mouse Civilisation
But the world is changing very rapidly now. I have cut and pasted and only slightly rewritten the last few paragraphs from an essay I wrote a few years ago but, already, they look very antiquated in their description of Britishness. The world is no longer like that in Britain because, in a global world, we have become increasingly Americanised here - like everywhere else. American entertainment is having a huge impact on our culture and American thinking too. Even the idea that there is a distinctive British culture seems a bit far fetched - at best British culture looks like the part of a marketing niche strategy, for the Heritage Industry, to draw tourists here, and to get our logos noticed on the tail fins of aircraft. As we move into a global market economy where the mega labels and PR empires define what culture we are nevertheless a culture and community that is very different from elsewhere in the world. The failure to understand that is embedded deep in our narrow minded political institutions:
In a recent article by Charlotte Raven in the London Guardian mocked the resulting viewpoint of President Blair. The points are well made:
"For them, Muslim fanaticism is the product of a PR triumph on the part of the forces of darkness. They cannot understand the nature of a belief that will not be swayed by a well-worded advert, nor begin to relate to the notion of a life lived outside that economy. As far as they are concerned, an Arab who has a problem with their policies is no different from a Birmingham housewife thinking of voting Lib Dem because she likes Charles Kennedy's manner. In both cases, they will try to alter their detractor's perceptions - a perfectly appropriate strategy for trying to win domestic votes which doesn't work with people whose beliefs aren't defined by marketing. The Muslims on the streets of Jacobabad are acting on instincts shaped by a complex web of circumstances. Their hatred of America is not a "position" like being anti-war in this country is a "position", since it lies at the very root of their identity. The reasons they relate to al-Qaida have nothing to do with Bin Laden's PR genius. They are pleased by him in the way that lifelong Tories were pleased by Margaret Thatcher, but that doesn't make him responsible for defining their frame of mind.
"If he were, there would be some wisdom in the other part of Blair's strategy. All those pieces he has written for Arab papers might really sway the matter in his favour. There is something rather sweet about the way he shores up evidence for the contention that "good" Muslims should support the campaign. He is never seen anywhere these days without his Koran, a book he refers to often when he is trying to "prove" that there's no theological justification for mass murder. Having read it and re-read it several times, he has also failed to find a single sentence that commits Muslims to stamping on straw-filled approximations of either himself or George Bush.
"Armed with this intelligence, he intends to confront the Arab world with the illogicality of its hatred for everything he stands for. Of the many ambitions of his premiership, that must count as one of the boldest."
Everywhere in the world too the new culture of globalisation is that of business and money. Of course it has been for a long time - but it is increasingly business pure that permeates everyone's way of thinking. A potential "clash of civilisations" will be perceived by people in other cultures in different ways and we have to make the effort to understand their ways of thinking. In the industrial countries we have lost sight of the extent to which we choose to see the world through the defining prism of economics, rather than through traditional spiritual beliefs. We do not see the extent to which economics has become an ideology which is the basis for our identity, as our common cultural and community binding force. Market economics and not Christianity is our culture and our identity. PR organisations are our new churches. Watch the CNN and you will find that, loyalty to the flag in America means, loyalty to the ideas of technology, growth, money and the market. "In God we Trust" is written on the dollar bills. When CNN reporters and correspondents from the world over talk together, they all share the common language and belief system of economics. This is the defining identity, this is the theology of our culture - and it is despised and hated by the people whose cultures and communities are under threat by it.
Is there an answer? I believe there is. This alternative is based on the recognition that solutions for people's real economic problems must be based on their local environments and therefore respecting of local traditions and conditions. This means a different kind of modernity from the McDisney globalising one. In another essay on my web site I wrote
"In the past human economies were much more adapted to the local environment. Food, clothing, shelter, water supply, fuel were taken from the locality. The locality was largely self sufficient. Work, social organisation, and the customs and culture of populations were therefore largely the result of a particular climate, landscape and drainage. Together these made for locally distinctive types of agriculture, architecture, crafts, clothing, diet etc. Local populations had corresponding structures of belief, gods, rituals, ceremonies, and celebrations.
"The local economic life, this greater self sufficiency, should not necessarily be idealised. Self sufficiency often meant poverty and vulnerability. Self sufficiency of local communities, the limited nature of communication and interchange with the rest of the world, also meant limited mental horizons, limited experience, limited development of knowledge and technique. This is why Karl Marx used the term 'the idiocy of rural life' - to describe the insular character of inward looking communities cut off from the rest of the world. ............
......The trend of economic history has been away from this. As regional, national and then international markets have developed, binding all into an international net of specialisation and exchange, self sufficiency has broken down. The trend is for local economies to become specialised parts of a system of world exchange. Rather than the adaptation of economic life to localities, we got the adaptation and subordination of localities to the centres that dominate the world market. The challenge now, for millions of people, is to reverse and halt this trend." (essay on Harmonising economic, social and environmental development in local projects).
Now we need a new patterning in human affairs where we support each other to go back to more localised economic relationships. Ecological restructuring is inevitably locality specific. It depends for local foods on local climate, local soils and local water supplies - and therefore on local cultivation techniques and culture. The insulation programmes in colder climates, the development of drinking quality water saving measures, the development of organic food sources (including those in urban areas), the improved strategies for urban green spaces, the repatterning of cities and countryside to reduce the need for transport and a curb on private transport in favour of public transport, the development of locally appropriate renewable energy sources matched to local needs etc. - all these have to be developed according to local conditions. So, too, do arrangements to pool or share access to products so that it is not necessary to make as many - and so that those that are made, are used more intensively, because they are shared. (This is the principle behind libraries which are local arrangements).
The social and economic life of the future will respect local cultures because it will be recognised how those cultures are based in local ecology. If does not see difference as inferiority. It recognises that other communities have a right to exist. Its tolerance is not based on another kind of reason.
© BRIAN DAVEY