by Musa Askari
originally published in InterReligious Insight – July 2012
If we are going to address ourselves to the issue of terrorism let us state the obvious and most important at the outset: the threat of nuclear weapons. The weapon announced its arrival to the world by unleashing its horror over Hiroshima and Nagasaki, stayed within our collective consciousness during the cold war and now, due to the one-sided debate on group terrorism, faded into the background. But it remains nonetheless real. It is impossible to comprehend fully the potential horror of such a weapon unleashing terror across the planet faster than any virus mutating across national boundaries.
The weapon and its fallout, like a virus, ignore national boundaries, recognising neither friend nor foe, neither oppressor nor oppressed. It does not discriminate. It is non-ideological. The hypnotic pull of the weapon is in the illusion of power it offers those in possession of it. Furthermore, the hypnosis is so far reaching we remain reluctant to be rid of it. The ultimate paradox is that we are protecting ourselves by sustaining a weapon which holds within its capability the destruction of its creator, humanity itself.
A call from the Russell-Einstein Manifesto can be understood as a call to humanity to wake up from the spell of collective hypnosis:
“We are speaking on this occasion, not as members of this or that nation, continent, or creed, but as human beings, members of the species Man (sic), whose continued existence is in doubt.”
The threat to humanity’s continued existence from weapons of mass destruction, stated by Russell-Einstein, is the canopy of “terror” under which humanity has been conducting its affairs for the last seventy years or so. It is a threat that has become embedded in our consciousness to such an extent that it assumes fantastical and mythical proportions. As Hasan Askari puts it: “After all, what is a myth? A myth is a public dream. What is a dream? A dream is a private myth.” It is a dream one remembers dreaming but cannot recall the details fully upon awaking.
More immediate and urgent than ecological concerns, if not on a par with them, humanity needs to be free from the terror of all weapons of mass destruction, nuclear, chemical and biological. To fulfil this extra-ordinary call, heeding the warning of Russell-Einstein, we need an equally extra-ordinary response of freeing ourselves from the grip of collective hypnosis. Unless we give up the old habit that by violence one can defeat violence we may not be able to save any innocent child’s life, born or unborn, now or years from now.
The nuclear weapon has no loyalty to either democratic or totalitarian nations. Is it not utterly shocking that the human intellect which unlocked the science to create such a weapon has resulted, through its proliferation, in creating a situation where the weapon can now destroy its creator? If this is not hypnosis then what is hypnosis? This is the unconscious terror under which we live and dare not look in the face: to behave in such ways where we believe we have freedom of choice when in reality our choices are governed by hypnosis.
To refer to Einstein once more: “God doesn’t play dice with the world.” We may now add: humanity does indeed play dice. What dangerous game of chance is it where the bet being waged is the continued existence of humanity? Whether one describes oneself as spiritual or a secular humanist, what is the value of that spirituality and humanism when such a weapon exists and we do not address ourselves to it? On this greatest of questions for human survival we require a combined, wholehearted, sustained spiritual-humanist response. When we talk of terrorism should it not be a minimum requirement to talk about the greatest threat humanity faces?
The real achievement of collective hypnosis is in its being hidden from our consciousness; by denying its own existence it continues to exist. At least a stage hypnotist asks for consent from an audience and removes the hypnosis at the end of the act. Collective hypnosis, on the other hand, neither asks for permission nor considers removing its influence. Let me cite again Hasan Askari:
“When I spoke in India after the atomic bombs were dropped over Nagasaki and Hiroshima, I said then (1950) that the ideology was dead, the weapon had surpassed it all. A quarter million people were destroyed in a couple of minutes. Man had acted against his own survival. Oppenheimer, the architect of the first nuclear device, while watching the mushroom cloud, had shouted that he had become the destroyer of the world. He then spoke on behalf of those governments of the world who could go on producing more and more deadly weapons, thinking that these weapons would give security and peace to the nations of the world. The irony is that the very ideological division in whose context the weapon was invented had vanished. But the weapon remains. The knowledge that produced it remains. Its potential users are all there. All these years I have waited for that idea that will surpass the weapon of mass destruction and the philosophy and the technology that produced it and that dark psyche which may use it. Hence, whichever ideology claims to meet the challenges of the world at this critical hour must call upon all mankind to rise to abolish weapons of mass destruction and abolish war altogether and every violent means to achieve any national or ideological ends. We then require a total commitment to honour and uphold each individual life. We have limitless resources within our soul to repel evil by the good, repel violence with non-violent means knowing that the truth has its own might to defend and protect itself.”
On one level the general debate seems fundamentally flawed, reduced to questions of power and control. On the one hand, it lends itself easily to rightly denouncing acts of violence carried out by interest groups, while on the other hand it is inconsistent in that equal attention is not paid to similar, if not worse, acts of aggression and violence linked to conflicts past and present by those in political power. A life lost is a life lost despite the ideology that inspires the act of violence. A life lost from either a suicide attack or a guided missile launched from thousands of feet is a precious life. At both ends of the spectrum of violence there is a person, family, neighbourhood, a child, hopes and aspirations. Thus any discussion of terrorism which does not look at the greater issue, loss of human life from any form of violence, is bound to fail due to its one-sided character, and this in turn perpetuates illusions, self- righteousness and collective hypnosis.
(The United Nations and security in a nuclear-weapon-free world)
SPIRITUAL CRITIQUE REQUIRED
A noticeable omission, so it appears to me, in the general news media is we are yet to be presented with some meaningful insight into the thinking of individuals, charged with or suspected of allegedly trying to commit horrific acts of violence. There is much news and information on movement between countries, occupations, academic backgrounds, other general details and so forth. One may track, locate and stop those who are committed to doing something deadly serious. However, beyond this physical security-led approach an attempt to present a spiritual critique becomes relevant when we come to religiously inspired group terrorism.
We may never know the inner psychological make up of each individual case. What we do know is that so-called religiously inspired terrorists, of whatever collective religion and political persuasion, present themselves as people of faith and that opens up the possibility of a spiritual response which both secular and faith-based humanists should be able to make together. Humanists cannot afford to wait on the sidelines and not participate in a joint spiritual-humanist critique of terror acts. A rationalist critique only of organised religion from humanists will not do. The time to revisit that is later.
We require a spiritual-humanist response addressed to the individual committed to acts of violence. The focus of our attention in any response must have at its heart the individual who would carry out a devastatingly merciless act of violence. If that means humanists and religious people need to go down the path of inquiring about spirituality together, so be it. It is in the individual where the hypnosis of terror takes hold, as it tempts individuals (and consequently nations) to respond to violent acts of terror with ever more violence, believing that “terror” has a physical locality – that if it is defeated by physical means in one place it will be defeated in every place. Let us admit that once and for all such an approach is absurd. We should have listened more attentively to those who were advocating an alternative to ever more violent responses to terrorism.
It is a trap we have fallen into it and tragically so many individual lives have been lost – individuals who make up a neighbourhood, city and country going about their daily lives. Whether it was Hiroshima or Nagasaki, Vietnam or Cambodia, Sri Lanka or Palestine, Chile or apartheid South Africa, Afghanistan or Iraq – a suicide attack by a Kamikaze pilot or a bomb exploding in some busy street – who can deny that in every instance the loss of individual lives is tragic beyond measure?
It is individuals related by family or friendship who are left to suffer tremendous sorrow and heartache. They cope in their own way, with immense courage, to somehow carry the grief of their loss. As individuals we suffer, as individuals we grieve, as individuals we hope to rise again above the waterline of trauma and re-gather the shattered pieces of our lives, never forgetting to honour those who have been taken from us prematurely. Should we notice the grief and hear the testimony of mourners we are humbled. Should we hear one story of heartache surely we must also recognise and pay tribute to all such stories across the world, regardless of circumstance, political grievance, national and religious boundaries.
Why are we not permitted to hear, in her own traumatised voice, in her own language, the pleas of a mother in Afghanistan cradling her new born child who was alive only moments ago and now is no more? Why do our news media, for example, seem to insist in having an intermediary to that grief by placing their reporter on the television screen between the victim and ourselves? Who other could do justice to that grief but the grief-stricken themselves?
I am reminded of the 2011 January 25th protests in Egypt where a man turns to the camera with his mouth bloodied saying: “Here is blood, there is terrorism”. Behind him on that night in Cairo we see crowds rushing for safety at the advance of security forces while the sound of gunshots can be heard. It is frightening watching it and one can only wonder what it must be like to have been there. What shall we say of any purpose behind violent acts of aggression by terrorist groups or states?
By “purpose” I imply something greater, universal, a goal to which every member of the human race can feel akin. A purpose which recognises that humanity’s past, present and future is both secular and sacred. Such a purpose excludes all forms of violence. A purpose which is a conscious self-thinking act by humanity. This to me is a purpose worth striving for in all peace. This to me is for the “common good”. What could be more common between each and every human being than “life” itself? What further good between us could there be than to honour the life of each and every self? Why should we not take a new direction and outdo one another in ever more greater acts of kindness, compassion and generosity upholding the common good, the principle of life?
With regard to so-called religiously inspired terror acts I would suggest that what is required is the shattering of religious self-righteousness. If one believes in a merciful and compassionate God, the Lord of “heaven and earth”, then is the mercy and compassion which characterises that Lordship to be understood as limited to a particular religion, region or piece of land, or is it not properly to be understood as universally transcending all divisions which we have created between us? We may need to take into account not only how a person perceives themselves socio-religiously but also “spiritually” – through what I would term “spiritual self-perception”.
By considering individual spiritual self-perception, asking questions about it, by altering the direction of our inquiry, we may yet steer a course away from a troubling development – a development which is another trap of collective hypnosis – that is, identifying the whole terrorist motivation of a small group of religiously motivated individuals with all of the followers of that religion worldwide. By doing so we do an injustice and miss the individual altogether, amplifying the effects of the physical horror, converting it into a general social suspicion of a faith body. Spiritual self-perception is a means to avoid all such developments, keeping our focus on the individual, thereby saving us from demonizing the other.
The ultimate responsibility for an act of terror cannot lie anywhere else but with the individual who commits it. Not a community, not a collective identity but simply and clearly the individual in sharp focus. An individual is more than a representational mix of collective identities. Let us not fall in to the trap laid by collective hypnosis of collective recrimination, isolating communities from each other.
The act has an actor. The script and stage may be controlled and set by others in power (groups/states). However, we cannot deny that the actor, as an individual, still has a choice to play the part or not. The sniper hiding in the rubble and the suicide bomber, both as individuals, have a choice to withdraw from the act. The choice, if it comes at all, may come very late, perhaps only moments before the act, or build up within the conscience of the individual. It is there, within the individual, that the sharp edge of terror, entering the world in a physical form, is born. It is to that moment of individuality that a narrative of spiritual self-perception attempts to speak to. How shall we speak to that individual?
Let us “speak” to that mind-set not just socially, morally, legally but also spiritually. Let us “ask” that individual to see others as individuals and think again.
It would be a mistake in my view, when preserving life is the prime motive, to neglect the question, “what is the individual spiritual self-perception foundation of any religiously motivated act of violence?” There should be no substantive objection to the word “spiritual” when we are attempting to use it in terms of preventing life from being taken prematurely. The value of the word is not whether a secularist agrees with the concept of spirituality or not. The value is in the potential for presenting a critique to religiously inspired terror – a critique which both secular and faith-based humanists should be able to make independently or together.
Why should there be any objection to the word “spiritual”? Why should we not together bring to bear the whole of human experience (secular, religious, scientific, mystical and spiritual) on problems? As one could say to any religious extremist, “do you worship your religion as a god or do you worship God?”, so one could ask a secular humanist who objects to the word spiritual, “which is more important; your world view or saving Life?” We cannot afford the luxury of conflict between secular, religious and spiritual outlooks when trying to pursue all peaceful avenues for preserving life.
The individuality of the individual, however submerged and drowned out by collective identities, still remains; perhaps latent but not absent. Otherwise how can one seek to explain the phenomenon of those who were once terrorists but speak now against the dogma they once believed, unless they had come to assert some form of individuality? That trace of individuality can also be noticed when we learn of soldiers who are or have been conscientious objectors and refuse to serve any longer. Quoting Hasan Askari, “unless one becomes a universal being one remains below humanity.”
In the arena of universal individuality we may have a chance to appeal to those more valued principles shared by much of everyday humanity. Rebel against that foisted identity and come out of that collective hypnosis which sees violent reprisals as the only effective means. The focus of this reflection is on honouring the most universal of things, individual human life and the common good. For that principle of life to be universal it must sit outside, over and above, all ideology and collective identity.
Outwardly, to “love thy neighbour” may be understood as to love that other who bears no resemblance to one’s collective identity of nationality, creed, language, race or religion. However, before the outer comes the inner. Before a thought there comes the thinker of that thought, the individual. Therefore, on the inner plane, there is another “neighbour” who both secular and faith-based humanists could have no disagreement about. It is a neighbour we take for granted far too often. Only when it has moved from its proximity to ourselves do we notice its absence. We abuse it, terrorise and torture it. We pay lip service to it and do not value it universally. It is all about us, it is all within us. Without this neighbour even our negligence of it is not possible. We raise countless tributes to it openly, only to betray it in secret. We honour it at one moment and in one place, at the same moment in a different place we dishonour. Through it all, throughout millennia, throughout all the wars humanity has conducted it has remained by our side. It has remained our constant companion even when we did not give it due recognition.
Who is this “neighbour” which has every right to seek justice for every injustice? It is simply and wonderfully, Life! From the sunrise of humanity to its sunset, each day, each night it is Life that is our nearest and dearest, our true next of kin. It is a kinship that bonds us to each and every human being on the planet. What a wondrous kinship it is indeed where it breathes through all outer kinships, through all divisions, through all diversity; it is the unity that binds us to each other. It is the Life of Humanity. As my late father used to say, “just reflect on the word Life!” I ask anyone contemplating any act of terror toward their fellow human beings to reflect on the word Life!
To repeat: as individuals we are more than any personal or collective identity; we are more than a nationality, creed, race or ethnicity, religion, caste or sect. May I suggest as humanists we cling to our identities lightly but not tightly: that such identities may inform our thinking but it is not essentially who we are. Spiritually, I would suggest we cling to such identities lightly with the hope that eventually we may let go of them so that what remains is the undivided individual. One un-differentiated self.
Nameless, we are born from our mother’s womb, unique and mysterious. In an attempt to identify that mystery, we are named. Perhaps this is one of the reasons why it is a moving experience when the names of those who have died are read aloud at remembrance gatherings throughout the world. How many names are forgotten? How many children have perished in acts of violence? Let us pay tribute to that mystery of life universally so that when we remember the innocent victims of one attack in one place we remember all such victims in all places, from people living under oppression to those in so-called free societies.
When we claim our individuality do we really mean it? Or do we think of ourselves as individual representations of a collective identity. That individual representation can become, under the spell of collective hypnosis, very easy to ridicule and dehumanise. We have seen it in the past, we are seeing it now. When one stops “seeing” the other as an individual another kind of birth mentally has taken place: the birth of the oppressor.
Where pride in collective identities, in extreme cases, takes on an exclusive one-sided face there we are entering a hypnosis which, in preservation of that identity, can readily ignore the injustices inflicted upon others. A self conscious good takes hold. In preserving any collective life by oppressive means, psychological and physical, it begs the question: where is the individual when gripped by collective hypnosis? Quoting Hasan Askari again:
“Jung was critical of world events, and he put forward the notion of the collective consciousness or the collective hypnosis created by religion, race, culture and language. In that sense, I believe that what Freud calls illusion, what Marx calls the opium of the masses, what Durkheim calls collective representation, and what Jung calls collective hypnosis, all sum up the phenomenon of collective history restricted to one particular formulation.”
In recent times one of the most powerful symbols of individual non-violent responses to terror has been the image of “The Tank Man” from Tiananmen Square; a lone citizen making an unarmed stand against the march of tanks. The footage is deeply moving. A lone man standing in the middle of a boulevard, straight, still and defiant. No weapon, just his individuality. Outwardly on one side there is the “Tank Man”, alone. On the other side there is a line of tanks, a symbol of state military power. Inwardly, what in my opinion is also spiritual, the “Tank Man” has a far greater number standing behind him and beside him. They are invisible to the naked eye. They are to be found in every age and culture and in every place where people live under oppression and terror. They are the “individuals”.
We should recall there were two “Tank Men” that day. One standing before the tank and the other hidden from view driving the lead tank. What transpired between those two individuals staring at each other on that afternoon we will never know. What was he saying? Who was he? It is a mystery. At least this image is known. What of the unreported and ignored lives of those equally brave individuals standing up peacefully to terror and oppression all across the world? We saw them and we heard them during 2011 in what has become known as the Arab Spring. They continue their struggle.
The recognition of suffering and grief in order to be a true recognition must, as a consequence, involve the recognition of suffering and grief of all people everywhere. The people concerned cannot look the other way. One can only imagine what immense heartache they undergo and even after such imagining and empathy there is still perhaps an abysmal gulf between our imagination and their reality. A spiritual-humanist response to all forms of terrorism starts not in the world out there but instead within the heart and mind of each individual. To quote Hasan Askari:
“In my view, there should be a two-fold response to idealistic and ideological developments which result in self-complacency or collective hypnosis. First is a sociological response which helps people or the communities involved in knowing why a particular idealism / ideological formulation is becoming relevant to people at one time in history. The sociological critique would liberate us from a collective hypnosis and lead us into an objective self-understanding.”
“The second corrective is, in my view, a psychological critique that this one-sidedness has far reaching consequences for the human personality because here its humanity will be deformed, will be partialised, will be fragmented. In order to create a synthesis of the sociological and the psychological critiques we have to enshrine in our understanding and in our reflection another category, not just of attitude, but also the very characteristic of the truth we are seeking, namely openness, or willingness to listen to the other in his or her otherness.”
A Spiritual-Humanist response to all forms of terror, as well as being a questioning of power, oppression, violence and war, is also a journey to seek the truth of our inter-connections as individuals. It will be a multi-faceted journey with many co-travellers: secular and faith based humanists being co-present recognising one another, bearing co-witness for the mutual goal of preserving and valuing LIFE in all its diverse and wondrous manifestations. The best among them being the Life of a child who expects the world to save it from the worst of what humanity has done in the past and who hopes for a different future.
Finally, concluding these, admittedly broad, reflections let me re-state the greatest threat to human survival: the nuclear weapon, which, in my view, is a crime against every single living individual human being. As we worry rightly about handing over to future generations the problems of ecological disaster, let us not also hand over to a future humanity an inheritance which includes the terror of weapons of mass destruction. The taking of any life anywhere, regardless of who comes to know about it, through any form of terror act, is a crime against the whole “single cell” of humanity. A humanity richly diverse is a wonder and mystery – secular and religious, material and spiritual, physical and meta-physical. As Hasan Askari put it, humanity “stands for a hidden, universal unity across all physical and racial boundaries.”
Human Nature by Hasan Askari
Spiritual Humanism speech by Hasan Askari, 1995
Ideological Dogmatism by Hasan Askari
From Inter Religious Dialogue to Spiritual Humanism by Hasan Askari
“Bulletin of Atomic Scientists”
Article VI – NPT Treaty “Each of the Parties to the Treaty undertakes to pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament, and on a treaty on general and complete disarmament under strict and effective international control.”
Inside the Centre: The Life of J. Robert Oppenheimer by Ray Monk (review via London Review of Books)