Violent Islamism has only contributed to all the problems it purportedly aims to resolve. And yet, many Muslims continue to look upon violence as a justified or even necessary “reaction” to real or perceived Islamophobia. A senseless video leads to worldwide violent protests and dozens of needless deaths. Every now and then, we continue to hear of disparate Muslim groups trying to bomb some part of the world and kill still more people just so that their own grievances get aired. What such thinking reflects is a lack of the reflexive consciousness that makes human beings distinct from animals.
By Saif Shahin, New Age Islam
What’s the difference between humans and animals? We are conscious beings while animals are not, most people would say. But what exactly is consciousness? From philosophers to scientists, sociologists to psychologists, scholars of all variety have tried to answer this vexed question for millennia. There are still no definite answers, but an eclectic combination of neurology, psychology, sociology and linguistics has started providing some clues.
George Herbert Mead was among the first to try to link sociological developments with deeper linguistic and psychological processes and even look towards Darwin’s theory of evolution for answers. Almost a century ago, he came up with an extremely fertile view of consciousness that was informed by all these streams of knowledge – a view that initially wasn’t taken too seriously, but which has found growing support in recent decades as advances in neurology have borne him out.
In Mind, Self, and Society, Mead explains how the human mind “arises” and consciousness is constructed. Turning on its head the common wisdom that language and communication are creations of the mind, Mead wrote that “mind arises through communication by a conversation of gestures in a social process or context of experience¬ – not communication through mind.” But a conversation of gestures – be they verbal (language, written and spoken) or non-verbal (hand movements etc.) –can take place only when particular gestures mean the same thing to more than one person. When that happens, gestures become significant symbols – arousing the same meaning in others that they arouse in us.
But how do we know that our gestures are doing so? We know that by studying the reactions of those with whom we seek to communicate, and adjusting our communication according to those reactions. For instance, if I visit a foreign land whose language I do not know, I might try to converse with someone there by speaking a simple word or two in English. If that person replies intelligibly, then I will know that he, too, can speak the same language and thus begin a conversation. If, however, he does not reply intelligibly, then I will know that conversation is not possible as we do not have a common set of significant symbols, and make no further effort. If the same keeps happening with every person I meet, I will also know that to survive in that country, I will need to learn the local language myself – anticipating that my further efforts to converse in English will be futile.
It was the physiological evolution of this ability to reflect on one’s own and others’ actions and then make necessary adjustments to one’s own actions that, according to Mead, made human beings distinct from other animals. Mead refers to this reflexiveness as consciousness, and adds that “reflexiveness, then, is the essential condition, within the social process, for the development of the mind.”Everything, from our notion of ourselves as individual beings to the formation of societies as sets of individuals with some things (particularly language) in common, follows from this essential ability of reflexiveness and allowed human beings to dominate other species.
What does any of this have to do with Islamophobia, or how (not) to deal with it? A good deal, actually.
Some people try to justify aggressive and violent reactions to Islamophobia by saying just that – these were “reactions” to provocations from others. Quite often, such “reactions” are not only justified but even considered necessary: the argument being that we need to teach Islamophobes a lesson, that without strong “reactions”, Muslims will continue to be targeted and victimised.
Examples are aplenty – ranging from Al Qaeda’s 9/11 attacks 11 years ago to violent protests against the anti-Muslim video ‘Innocence of Muslims’ a couple of months ago. While Osama bin Laden(wrongly) used Quranic verses to argue that his and his group’s actions were not un- Islamic, this “unIslamicness” itself was not the motivation for his actions. He presented his actions as a “reaction” to age-old grievances – a reaction to the conquest, colonisation and exploitation of Muslim lands, and general Western discrimination against and mistreatment of Muslims.
Guess what? In the wake of his “reaction”, more Muslim lands have been colonised, more Muslims have been discriminated against, and tens of thousands of more Muslims have been killed. Palestinians, whose plight is often a rallying cry for Islamists, are much worse off than they ever were, their hopes of having their own nation dimmer than ever before. Any way you look at it, violent Islamism has only contributed to all the problems it purportedly aims to resolve. And yet, many Muslims continue to look upon violence as a justified or even necessary “reaction” to real or perceived Islamophobia. A senseless video leads to worldwide violent protests and dozens of needless deaths. Every now and then, we continue to hear of disparate Muslim groups trying to bomb some part of the world and kill still more people just so that their own grievances get aired.
What such thinking reflects is a lack of the reflexive consciousness that Mead wrote about – the consciousness that makes us distinct from animals. These continued “reactions” ¬– in so far as they are meant to be significant symbols of Muslim anger – clearly do not carry the same meaning for others as they do for their perpetrators. They do not have the same response that their perpetrators expect; in fact the response they generate is exactly the opposite.
As conscious human beings, we need to reflect upon these reactions to our “reaction” and adjust it accordingly. I am not talking about whether violent Islamism is morally or islamically justified or not. I don’t think it is, but that is a different debate. I am asking, even if it were morally and islamically acceptable, is it the right strategy? No, it isn’t. And so we need to rethink the whole idea of violence – in any form – as a meaningful way of doing things, as an aide to our cause. It is counterproductive, and we need to shun it. We need to be more creative, we need to think of new ways of doing things. If don’t do so, we are no better than animals in the evolutionary sense, and we have no chance of succeeding in a world populated by more intelligent human beings.
Saif Shahin is a doctoral research scholar in political communication at the University of Texas, Austin, U. S