By Yoginder Sikand, New Age Islam
If you really dispassionately think about it, you are bound to realize that many forms of conflict, whether inter-personal or between communities and entire countries, boil down to one simple phenomenon: what seems to be the innate propensity of the ego to believe and insist that it is the best, the greatest, the most righteous, the most pious and so on, either because of its own presumed merits or simply by virtue of being a member of a larger group—what it believes to be the most intelligent race, the best country, the only community chosen by God, the only sect destined to heaven, and so on.
The ego simply can’t settle for thinking itself to be second-best, leave alone right at the bottom of the heap. This seems something intrinsic to the ego. Naturally, this tendency inevitably leads to conflict, because all egos—individual as well as communal—want to feel that they are the best, if not individually then at least as members of a group of egos that collectively believe themselves to be the best.
The seemingly irrepressible desire of the ego to feel it’s the best by itself or by association with a larger group or communal ego is perhaps deeply rooted in childhood experiences. A child is taught to believe from infancy itself that he has to be the best in class. Nothing less will do. He must be best in sports, too. His teddy-bear, he is convinced, is cuddlier than the ones his friends has, his doll the sweetest, his blanket the coziest, and nothing you tell him to the contrary will make him change his mind. His friends, he thinks, are the best anyone could ever have. His parents, he believes, are the best parents in the world. For their part, they, too, think he’s the best child that any parents could ever ask for. He’s got the sweetest smile, the loveliest eyes, the most amazing laugh—no other child could ever be so cute, they brag. And the amazing thing is that almost every child and parent thinks the same way!
In short, as the ego develops and crystallizes, the child begins to believe that he and all that’s connected to him—his parents, his toys, his pets, his friends, and so on—are just the very best. Soon, as he grows up, the scope of what about himself and things related to him that he thinks is the best expands. He comes to believe that his views, his hopes, his values, his way of looking at the world, his girl-friend, his culture, the music he listens to and so on are the best, too.
Because these attributes define him in a very fundamental way and are intrinsic to his ego, he feels a desperate need to ardently believe that they indeed are the best. Since the individual ego craves to be thought of as the best, all that’s connected to it has also to be believed to be the best, too—because otherwise the ego simply cannot sustain its illusion of being the best.
If you believe you are the best, either by yourself or through association with something or a group that you believe is the best, it gives you a sense of self-importance and confidence, illusory though it may actually be. If you think that your ways of thinking and being are the best, you almost inevitably seek to impose them on others. Naturally, others, who think in exactly the same way about their own ways (because, like you, they, too, have egos), will do the same with you. And this will inevitably lead to conflict.
This is why intensely close relationships, such as between parents and grown-up children or between siblings or spouses, are almost inevitably unstable and tension-ridden. The closer the relationship is and the more the time and emotion invested in a relationship, the more desperately each of the egos involved in that relationship seeks to impose its ways on the others. Hence, the greater are the possibilities for conflict. That is why no two people hate each other more than most spouses or many siblings do!
At the communal and even international levels, the same principle of the ego boosting itself through association with people, things, beliefs or attributes that it believes to be best is at work in fomenting conflicts. Communal egos work in much the same way as individual egos do, because, after all, they are simply a collection of a number of individual egos.
A child is carefully groomed to imagine that his religion or ideology (which could even be entirely atheistic or even anti-theistic)—the one that his family follows—is the best. The founder of his faith or ideology is simply the greatest of all, he is taught. No one performed as many miracles as he did or preached as lofty a philosophy or was as sincere and God-fearing or as committed to humanity as he was—or so he comes to believe. His country is the most superior of all, he is socialized into imagining. So, too, his race and culture.
The individual and communal ego simply can’t settle for any of these being thought to be second-best—because if, for instance, you were to think some other religion or ideology being equal to or better than yours, it would badly batter your ego, which wants to think of everything that defines it as the very best, because only then can it sustain its illusion of being the best. If you concede that a religion or ideology other than yours may be better than yours, more rational or sensible or whatever—or even equal to yours, as being as rational or sensible—you would no longer be the best in your own eyes. No longer would you be a follower of the ‘best’ religion or ideology, a member of the ‘best’ religious community or the most ‘progressive’ ideological community. And that’s simply unacceptable to the ego, which simply has to believe it is the best, even simply by being a member of the ‘best’ community, the community that follows the ‘best’ religion, the most ‘sensible’ and humane’ ideology.
Religious, ideological and communal supremacism are thus, at least partly, rooted in the individual ego’s desperate need to be thought of as the best through association—as a follower of the ‘best’ religion or ideology, as a member of the ‘best’ community or ideological group.
The amazing thing about it is that almost adherents of all religions and ideologies, almost all members of all religious communities and ideological groups, are equally convinced that their respective religions or ideologies are the best of all! But this is hardly surprising if you realise that it is just their egos at work here, which impel them to think in this way.
And so, people drag themselves through life boasting to themselves and to everyone else that their religion or ideology is the ‘best’, secured in their belief that their religion or ideology alone can take people to heaven or establish heaven on earth—simply because it is the religion or ideology THEY happen to follow.
Similarly, you feel impelled to insist that your country is the best, your culture the most sublime, the language you speak the most scientific, and so on, not because you’ve studied other countries, other cultures or other languages with an open mind and have come then come to an informed conclusion that your country or culture or language is the best, but simply because your ego has the desperate need to feel that everything that defines it—including your country, culture, and language—simply has to be the ‘best’. So, no matter how awful your country is and no matter how many enormous warts your culture may boast of, you simply want to believe your country and culture to be the best just because this massages your insecure ego. How can your ego, which always wants to think it’s the best, accept that your religion or your ideology or your country or your culture group may not really be the best, and that other religions, ideologies, countries and cultures may be equally, if not more, worthy? To even concede this possibility is death for the individual and communal ego, and that is something that the ego constantly resists.
And so, it seems, most people have a desperate psychological need to passionately believe their religion, culture, ideology, country and way of life to be the best. Irrespective of the real merits of their religion or culture or country, they insist that they are the best simply because they have a deep-rooted psychological urge to want to be convinced that they themselves are the best, followers of the ‘best religion’, descendants of the inventers of the ‘most sublime culture’, citizens of the ‘most civilized country’, adherents of the ‘most scientific’ ideology and the ‘most humane’ way of life. All that is necessary fuel to their egos. Such claims are less about the actual merits of their religions, ideologies, cultures and nations than about the ego and its desperate need to be convinced it’s the best because it’s in the company of the best—what it thinks is the best religion, ideology, culture and nation. How can the individual ego remain in its illusion of being the best if the communal ego of which it is a part is thought of as being subordinate, or even equal, to some other communal ego, if the religious, ideological or cultural community or country it belongs to is not thought of as the best of all?
You can easily see from this how this craving of the ego to be considered the best by insisting that the group it belongs to is the best of all can easily lead to conflict between two or more communal egos. Each communal ego—a cultural group, a race, a religious community, an ideological party, a nation—thinks that it is the best, and that means consigning other communal egos to a subordinate or lesser status. Now, since no communal ego would be ready to cheerfully accept this situation, conflict often results—sometimes taking horrendously violent forms.
That’s what many inter-religious, ideological and inter-national conflicts are probably all about—a battle of individual egos on a large scale, each desperately seeking security for itself by reinforcing its belief in being the best of all—a belief which it passionately clings to, because without it, it simply cannot survive as an ego, as separate from and antagonistic to the rest of the cosmos.