Religious Imprinting and Jihadism

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26 sep 2008, 19:51

by Amil Imani *



1. Religious belief is emotional at its core. And emotions are not governed by logic or reason. Becoming religious is similar to imprinting, most dramatically seen in ducklings. During a critical period of time after hatching the ducklings become imprinted on any moving object—be it the mother duck, a mechanical duck, or a moving human. It doesn’t matter. The ducklings simply follow the initially moving object.

2. Religion, for most part, is infused into the mind of children from the moment of birth. Early childhood is the time that children are most imprintable. The strength and permanence of this imprinting process depend on a variety of influences. Over time, some people retain the initial imprint and strengthen it, some adopt a middle course, and some might even discard it altogether. A significant number in any religious faith becomes extremely committed to the extent that they are willing to kill others and themselves in the service of their religion.

3. The human mind is a battleground of contending forces where the two most powerful are reason and emotion: where reason assesses life and produces measures that are adaptive, to the best of its ability; while emotion, by-and-large, operates on feelings. Ordinarily, an uneasy truce prevails between the two generally incompatible powers.

4. In many situations, the clash between dictates of reason and promptings of emotion result in intra-psychic conflicts. In any given case, the conflict may settle by one party getting its way, reaching a compromise, or a deadlock producing paralysis of inaction.

5. Beliefs, as is the case with all living and non-living complex systems, are targeted by forces that aim to break them down. In the case of beliefs, any threatening event, particularly when severe, produces great anxiety in the believer.

6. Anxiety produces aversive reaction. The mind deals with anxiety by a mix of chemical and psychological measures. On the psychological side there are defense mechanisms such as rationalization and denial. Both these measures reduce the debilitating impact of anxiety by the person literally misleading himself. Rationalization supplies faulty reasoning by telling the person that the bad thing, or the threat, is not all that bad; while denial completely refuses to admit it exists. Alcoholism, for instance, is known as the disease of denial since the alcoholic denies that he is an alcoholic even in the face of irrefutable objective evidence.

7. Religious beliefs’ emotional underpinning spawns fanaticism in some of the adherents, since fanaticism is seen as a reflection of one’s true loyalty and strong faith.

8. Beliefs, be they religious or otherwise, are tied to a central figure such as a prophet, a philosopher, or a social reformer. Particularly in religion, the central figure and his high disciples occupy a rarefied, nearly superhuman, sphere.

9. It is a human tendency to find a source or a person to whom he can attribute powers and qualities that he himself yearns for, yet he lacks—a father surrogate. People age, but the insecure child within remains at the core of many. It is the child within that attaches himself to an omnipotent father figure.

10. The founder of a religion presents to the child within the lost father he no longer has or he never had. It is for this reason that the founder of a religion is held at the highest esteem and his edicts are obeyed wholeheartedly by his followers. The believers’ degree of devotion is in direct proportion to the hierarchy of the religious authorities.

11. In the case of the 12-Imamate Shi’a Islam, for instance, the Imams filled the void that was created by Muhammad’s death. Hence, the Imams are revered with a degree of devotion only one notch below Muhammad himself. In time, the Imams also died. Yet the need for a tangible father-figure remained. The Shiites filled that void by transferring their attachments to a cadre of religious authorities ranging from the highest-ranking Grand Ayatollahs, followed by Ayatollahs, the Hujat-ul-Islams (Islamic adjudicators), and all the way down to the village mullah.

12. Attributing special powers and capabilities to the father surrogate not only compels the person to ward off anything that threatens to undermine his belief, but to do what he can to further solidify it. This process of protecting one’s belief and shoring it up frequently results in strong emotional attachment to the leader. In a real sense, people see the person as an omnipotent father figure—their savior—who would guide them and minister to their needs not only in this world, but also in the afterlife.

13. As is the case in all attachments, a price must be paid. The price is often commensurate with the degree of attachment. A religious fanatic is a rigidly-attached believer who is captive of his own emotional excesses. This emotional excess, given the right context, will overrule the dictates of reason and compels the fanatic to carry out any abhorrent act demanded of him rather than sever his emotional fixation on the righteousness of his belief and the authority of his belief leaders.

14. Islam is an intensely emotional authoritarian system of belief. Hence, Islam induces powerful emotional imprinting in a large percentage of its adherents. It is from this segment of the Muslims that the fanatic jihadists arise and pose existential threat to the “other.” The jihadists are rigidly-imprinted foot-soldier Islamic automatons that have little choice but to carry out the fatwa and dictates of their high-ranking religious leaders such as the Ayatollahs in the case of the Shi’a and Muftis for the Sunni.

15. For as long as Muslim high priests retain their stranglehold on the masses of Muslims, generation after generation of father-figure seeking jihadists will turn to them, revere them, and carry out their violent decrees obediently.


*Amil Imani is an Iranian born, pro-democracy activist who resides in the United States of America. He is a poet, writer, literary translator, novelist and an essayist who has been writing and speaking out for the struggling people of his native land, Iran. Amil Imani's Home Page: www.amilimani.com.

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