April 28, 2010
What is the narrative or belief that supports your opinions and actions?
A segment on 60 Minutes this past Sunday was called “Jihadists and ‘The Narrative.’ ” It told the story of a Britain named Maajid Nawaz, who was a non-practicing Muslim when, at the age of 13, he became a “genuine, committed ideologue,” convinced of the truth of what he calls “the narrative” — the belief that America hates Muslims and wants to destroy them.
After recruiting many people to the cause, he eventually went to Egypt, was arrested and put in jail with jihadists who had been there for twenty or more years and had gone through a process where they had abandoned their jihadist views. At first he thought it was his job to re-convince them that the narrative was right. But through the discussion process he began doubting the strength of his own convictions.
He could see that “today’s radical ideology is closer to fascism than true Islam.” After four years in prison, he returned to England and now rebuts the “very narrative he once passionately promoted.” In fact, he believes that “countering the narrative is the core of the solution, making this narrative as unfashionable as Communism has become today.”
It was refreshing to watch him discuss these ideas with other Muslims and to notice that he could actually make progress with some of them, though his goal of countering the narrative will be slow and will take a long time. Toward that end he co-founded the Quilliam Foundation, a think tank that is mostly funded by the British government. The idea is to influence the two million British citizens who are Muslim, especially the roughly 2,000 of them who the government says are Islamic radicals who pose a threat to national security.
As I watched the show, I was glad to see someone counter a myth that has caused the deaths of thousands, and will probably cause many more deaths before the number of Muslims who believe in it are fewer. Yet I wonder who many viewers were ready to challenge their own most cherished assumptions.
We all believe in a narrative that helps explains our world view, our philosophy of life, and most of all, our religion or spirituality.
The problem comes when we accept our narrative as true without question, which is at the core of political positions we hold. For example, one narrative claims that illegal immigrants, undocumented immigrants — or whatever you call the people who have become the center of intense controversy in Arizona and the rest of the United States — cost more than they provide to the economy. Another narrative claims the opposite.
Both positions cannot be exclusively true at the same. However, truth can be found somewhere between the opinions on the left and on the right. To reach that point requires persons holding both positions to examine their narratives more closely. To examine the narratives we hold requires courage and an open mind, which is often in short supply in those with the most strongly held positions. To find courage requires us to recognize the danger of continuing on a path of conflict that is likely to end in even worse problems than we have now.
When we have found our courage, we can stop denigrating the narratives of others (even when we are convinced the suppositions behind those narratives are shaky, after all, they seem accurate to the other guy). Most of all, courage requires us to acknowledge that possibly, just possibly, there may be flaws in the facts we use to shore up our opinions.
One of the most difficult narratives to dislodge is the narrative that lies behind religious beliefs. Three years ago in the blog I wrote a two-part post called Examining Why You Believe What You Believe. In it I posed questions such as the following:
ASK YOURSELF THESE QUESTIONS
- What do I see in nature that causes me to believe in the religion I profess, or to not believe in a religion?
- How do my relationships, ethnicity and sex affect my choice of a religion or spiritual practice, or do they cause me not to believe in a religion at all?
- What effect does my understanding of history and current events have on my religious beliefs?
- If I believe in a “God” (or a spirit or power I call by another name), would I define my God as authoritarian, benevolent, critical, or distant? What is there in my experience that supports my belief?
- What is there about my life that causes me to conclude the creation of the universe occurred as I believe it did?
If you believe that God will punish you if you don’t toe the official line, then you better know the rules. If you aren’t sure that you know the rules, you will tend to believe there is someone else who does and believe that person.
Then, if you are a Muslim, you might agree with the “logic” of Ayatollah Hojatoleslam Kazem Sedighi, a senior Iranian cleric. According to the Times of India, he said that earthquakes are caused by, “Many women who do not dress modestly . . . lead young men astray, corrupt their chastity and spread adultery in society.”
If you are a fundamentalist Christian who believes Pat Robertson speaks for God, you will more likely to accept his statement that the earthquake in Haiti can be blamed on the “Haitian’s pact with the devil.”
Robertson wasn’t the first Christian who saw moral implications in earthquakes and other “acts of God.” Back in 1750 John Wesley, founder of the Methodist church, placed the blame of earthquakes on mankind, though God was the one who carried out the sentence of retribution for mankind’s sins.
Most of us today scoff at these attempts to explain events over which we have no control, but for centuries, until tectonic plates were discovered, humans tried to explain them with whatever evidence they had. Since part of their experience was a belief in a God who sent whatever came into their lives, refreshing rain or floods, health or disease, quiet tremors or major earthquakes, it was natural that divine forces were blamed, or praised, for whatever happened in their lives
It is easy to see that once you blindly accept the theory behind a narrative or belief, you are more likely to slide down a slippery slope to acceptance of questionable beliefs.
This is not to imply that there is no validity to our narratives. The narrative that says children who are criticized are likely to become critical adults, or the narrative that says spouses who treat one another with kindness are likely to remain married, have good evidence to back up that position.
What evidence do you have for your view of the world and what should be done to make it a better place for everyone, even those who disagree with you?