What each of us has most reason to do is to make any change that would be best for himself. If someone believes that he could make such a change, it would be irrational for him not to do so.

Derek Parfit

Reasons and Persons

Pangburn Philosophy has published a video on its Youtube channel, featuring Armin Navabi in Lakemba, Sydney, asking Australian Muslims whether they believe it acceptable to criticise Islam. He explains that this is the area from which Lauren Southern found herself ejected by police, and expresses hope that he can embark on a more successful attempt at discourse. Navabi engages several individuals in the area, receiving a happily mixed bag in responses to his questions. One hijab-clad woman tells him: “Everything is criticisable with respect because religion is a sensitive topic for everyone . . . open discussion is necessary. Who else are people going to ask about Islam other than Muslims?”, while a man declares that it is always wrong to criticise religion, and that the police “should attack” critics of Islam.

The video’s most pertinent conversation for our discussion, however, concerns a “proud Muslim” man, and the apparent paradox between his kindness and hospitality towards Navabi and his explicit acknowledgements and endorsements of what would be his plight as an apostate under the global theocracy which he hopes for. The man shows Navabi to a nearby restaurant and invites him to dine and relax, telling the man behind the counter to look after him. A local sheikh is invited to discuss the concepts of free expression and religious freedom, and though this conversation ends on quite a bitter and disheartening tone, it does not itself detract from the warmth that the man showed to Navabi in the invitation.

This apparent paradox—and I call it this because such contradictions are only perceived with a superficial and insufficient understanding of motivations—is the subject of our discussion here. It warrants an explanation, and I submit that, as with much within our world worth caring about, belief is the factor that balances the equation and resolves the ostensible contradiction. As I wrote about the last movements of Khalid Masood before his cliché of a death that was suicide-by-cop, the clearest sense is made from a standpoint of accepting the sincerity and conviction of beliefs in concepts such as heaven, hell, and the intricate and overlooked details that go along with both. There is hardly a more arresting demonstration of this variable’s power than that found in the childhood of Navabi himself.

“Armin was born and raised in the Islamic Republic of Iran” reads the afterword in Navabi’s book, Why there is no God. “He was indoctrinated quite thoroughly since early childhood in the Muslim tradition. He would pray regularly five times a day, as all Muslims are mandated to. Growing up, he was afraid of all the things which good Muslims are supposed to be afraid of: hell, sin, the devil, etc.” This last sentence does little justice to the reality of what it means to be afraid in this context, however. Navabi elaborates in an interview, describing the mental arithmetic needed to envision the prospect of literally burning for literal eternity in literal fire. The Quran, as I have written recently in another context, celebrates with explicit glee as it describes the inferno which awaits the unbelievers: “Those who reject Our revelations—We will scorch them in a Fire. Every time their skins are cooked, We will replace them with other skins, so they will experience the suffering. Allah is Most Powerful, Most Wise. [4:56]”

Navabi describes how as a child he placed a just-extinguished match against the skin of his arm. “This is too painful. Imagine this, all over your body, forever.” It is a great shame that so many among us labour under the grave misapprehension that such beliefs in hell as a real destination are never sincere. Navabi goes on to explain the relief granted by his aunt, who told him that only the “worst of the worst people” go to hell, but this brief interlude in his conviction as to the torment awaiting his hellfire-bound soul lasted only until the teachers at his school corrected him.

“Actually, most people are going to end up in hell. Even most Muslims are going to end up in hell . . . If you miss one prayer, if you miss one day of fasting, if you doubted God ever, you will have to pay for it.” The particular sect within Islam under which Navabi was indoctrinated holds that a boy acquires moral culpability at the age of fifteen (while a girl acquires it at nine, with all kinds of hideous implications). Knowing at least that his sins until that age would not count, and that he had at a minimum a technical opportunity to live a virtuous life, Navabi’s concerns turned to the souls of his parents, who were Muslim in name only and did not practice.

The teachers explained that even if his parents became perfect Muslims overnight, they would have to atone for every missed prayer along with all their other transgressions. Once they died, Navabi was told, he could perform extra prayers and he could fast on non-Ramadan days in vicarious recompense for the crimes of his mother and father. His teachers even did the maths for him. Plotting the ages of his parents and the years they had lived impiously, the dejecting conclusion that Navabi would not live long enough to redress their sins alone landed heavily. He would now have to ensure that he earned enough money to pay others to perform the prayers and the fasts so as to spare his parents from the flames.

As the age of culpability loomed, Navabi began to consider the option of suicide—A grave transgression for most Muslims but not so for one not yet of age. He recalls that the strongest argument against the option that his teachers could bring to the table was merely that children dying by their own hand would only reach the lowest layer of the celestial cake. The top tier alongside Mohammed himself, they explained to him, was reserved for martyrs, in accordance with Quranic prescription: “Let those who sell the life of this world for the Hereafter fight in the cause of Allah. Whoever fights in the cause of Allah, and then is killed, or achieves victory, We will grant him a great compensation. [4:74]”

The avoidance of pain is a more rallying motivation than the pursuit of pleasure, and this fact carries dark implications about the ubiquity of pain amongst the creatures capable of the sensation that populate our planet. Needless to say, Navabi was content to merely escape the flames; any layer of paradise would be a bonus. Thus, at the tender age of twelve and living close to the horizon of his age of innocence, “after making up his mind and stealing his resolve, Armin launched himself from one of the higher windows in his school.”

Navabi survived with a fractured ankle, leg, arm and vertebra. He spent several months in hospital and eventually recovered and made an equally-fascinating transition into the light of atheism, but that is not the subject pertinent to our considerations here. The question we must weigh concerns what sense Navabi’s behaviour makes absent the factor of belief, and the answer, I submit, is none whatsoever unless one invokes a premise of insanity. His tragic childhood is a stark reminder that such decisions are entirely rational in the context of the beliefs under which a vast portion of our population is forced on pain of eternal torture to live and act.

There is a troubling conflation being appealed in these discussions, which renders any beliefs in concepts such as martyrdom to be themselves sufficient evidence for a popular diagnosis of insanity, and it consequently boils the argument down to being inanely circular. The frequent and impressively prompt declarations that those embarking on blade-frenzies in the cities of Western Europe while screaming “Allahu akbar!” were suffering from mental health issues before being rewarded with the death they craved, are pernicious for a reason that I suspect is underappreciated.

Consider the man from the video in Lakemba once more. This was not an evil man, and the initial reservation with which he accepted the logical consequences as to what would come of Navabi-the-apostate under a global caliphate was palpable. The often-uttered responses to these questions come couched in qualifications about it being “Allah’s will”, and “It’s not what I want”, and these semantic steps in distancing oneself from the consequences of one’s premises speak to an extent of a tacit acknowledgement that there might be some divergence between their own morality and that of God.

The acceptance of only a handful of precepts is required to render what would otherwise be maniacal behaviour perfectly rational in their context. The idea of a mother celebrating the death of her child after having forsaken the opportunities of Sweden to move to the Caliphate of the Islamic State and live under Sharia, is a ghastly one, surely devoid of any logical harmony. And yet, with the simple premise that her martyred son will reach the highest table at the banquet of heaven, what kind of a mother would she be if she didn’t wish this for him? There is a sinister transcendence to the implications of such convictions.

I conceived of the unsettling implications of divine command theory and the logic arising from such premises as a teenager. If children were bound to grow up in a world plagued by sin and temptation, and their deaths as infants would guarantee the eternal joy of their souls in the hereafter, surely the most morally virtuous thing to do would be to kill them before they have the opportunity to transgress and condemn themselves to an infinite period of torment. Furthermore, the meta virtue of such an act need not be undermined by some divine doctrine declaring it a crime, as if it would be virtuous to sacrifice one’s life for the sake of the lives of others (“Greater love hath no man”), it would surely be more virtuous still to sacrifice one’s soul for the souls of others.

Perverse though such considerations might be, we cannot call them alien. The jihadists who kill indiscriminately in their final acts before, or while, they die themselves, have the comfort of believing themselves to be acting with exactly these levels of virtue. Once the precept that those killed are bound for a hell proportionate to their sins is accepted, it takes no great leap to suppose also that it would be an act of kindness to end their potential for further sins and further damnation. I take less issue with the declaration that these jihadists are evil than with the declaration that they are insane, but neither supposition brings the awesome explanatory power that comes readily with an acceptance of the sincerity of their beliefs.

These beliefs—in heaven, hell, angels and djinns—are insufficient to constitute grounds for the comfort of a declaration of insanity, and our reasons for hoping so naively that we could blame these crimes on a psychological disorder are encapsulated with a dark beauty by Terry McDermott in Perfect Soldiers:

We want our monsters to be outsized, monstrous. We expect them to be somehow equal to their crimes. More than anything, we want them to be extraordinary, to allow us to believe the horrible thing they did is unlikely to be repeated. In its own odd way, this is a comforting thought.

The bliss of our ignorance on this point will be short-lived. The pernicious effect of the conflation is the excuse it grants us to trudge blindly under a misapprehension which supposes that only the truly wicked and insane can act in such ways. The truth, though bleak at first glance, carries with it a contingency for remedy. It is that people need not be evil or psychotic to act in barbaric ways; they need only be infected with poisonous ideas which dictate a worldview perverting the values by which we judge human flourishing. It is the ideas which must be challenged, and it is the practices and habits which grant refuge to those ideas from ridicule and criticism which must be recognised for the wolves they are, however soft the wool is that they come dressed in.

 


 

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