The only camel I ever liked, Arabian Desert, 2011, UAE
Just so you know, I don’t like writing about religion. The short version of why I don’t like writing about religion is that it makes people really angry — more angry than usual. But in the wake of the attacks on Paris that killed 150+ people, and Beirut only a few days earlier that killed 40-some, I thought it might be a useful meditation to understand how these things come into existence from the collective mind. The dominant narratives are simply not working, and it would behoove all of us to pause before the brink — regardless of what those next steps became.
For most people, their choice of religion is inscribed in their deep limbic circuits — virtually every religion has an entry ceremony for youth at the earliest possible age (think baptism, circumcision, etc.) and even people who have continued to a point of rational evolution don’t like their beliefs picked apart. For those that come into a new religion later in life — it’s likely a profound epiphany, (like being Born Again) which has some element of trauma involved. And that hits a reset button in the limbic system as well.
On top of that, people a whole lot more thoughtful and smarter than I have picked religion apart pretty thoroughly on an individual basis. Here’s a great piece by the Integral Philosopher Ken Wilber, that splits things up in a dichotomy I’d never have thought of, myself being far more of a collective thinker.
But when it comes to the components of religion, those are like any other knowledge structure — largely arrived at by collective agency among a group of people. And the same principles of knowledge formation and mapping of social structure, as well as importantly, the fundamentals of metacognition — knowing what we don’t know — come into play. Those in belief-based social structures are likely to have angry Gods and short timescales. Those with more rational associations are likely to be a little more accepting of the unknown, as well as embracing metacognition and agency of the Believers in deciding what they want to believe.
Religion, as a knowledge structure, evolves over time. No better illustration of this can be found than one of my favorite versions of the Bible — The Brick Bible — where all the stories are re-enacted with Lego characters. If you read through this version (and yes — I have studied the ‘Real Bible’ as well) you can track the the v-Meme evolution of the Jews, and Christianity through the stories. I was raised a Catholic, so I’m pretty familiar with all the various parts. The Brick Bible does a great job of showing how we started out in the Survival v-Meme (Adam and Eve,) progressed through the Tribal/Magical (the story of Lot and his daughters is really about the need for an evolving Legalistic v-Meme) and through to Jesus’ Communitarianism and beyond.
All religions were (and are) artifacts of their time. If you believe in Islam now, you may want to believe in the magical stuff, like Muhammed springing to Heaven on a Winged Steed. But regardless of the level of the Touch of God, all the various prophets were v-Meme limited, just like all of us now. Muhammed inhabited a world devastated by two empires — the Byzantine and Sassanian (Persian) — and came into a world of loose tribal confederations in a hostile land with few resources. (Sound familiar?) His construction of the Qu’ran was designed around consolidating those warring tribes into an Authoritarian v-Meme empire, where future rulers would be constrained by some level of Legalism as well as some element of meritocracy. Station at birth was important, but you also had to know something. Considering the world that Muhammed was born into, these were radical, progressive social innovations.
The Qu’ran is also prescriptive, as most religious texts as this were earlier. The Sharia, Islamic Law derived from both the Qu’ran and the Hadith, as well as a deliberative process from various Imams, mullahs, and scholars, was designed for governance.
This is very different from the Christian Bible — especially the New Testament, where Jesus only staked his claim in prophecy and guiding principles. Muhammad was a military leader and someone who tried to keep some very fractious desert tribes from killing each other. As a consummate Authoritarian, however enlightened he may have been, it is not surprising that he would use some elements of societal terror to keep everyone in line. Add to that the fundamental fatalism embedded in Islam — every action is concluded with Insha’Allah — doesn’t, for those with short time scales, imply much independent agency. In conservative Islam, the governing authority is fully invested with the power to tell you how to behave and think.
The problems with these belief systems is that humanity and sentience moves on. As an aggregate, we are simply not the same people, with the same levels of empathetic evolution, as we were 1400 some odd years ago. For better or for worse, we have evolved radically different social structures than what dominated the ancient world, that have allowed more complex knowledge structures. These have led to a different built architecture, and machines, that the world had never seen, or barely conceived of.
So, are those with more modern v-Meme sets, superior to those in the past? The tendency when looking around is to then take the pattern of the Spiral, and the Intermediate Corollary, and pronounce modern humanity as smarter. That’s a dangerous leap to take. That implies that lower v-Meme systems cannot embody more complex and nuanced knowledge structures, and we must necessarily, always be ‘smarter’ than tribal people.
The best way to explain that this is not necessarily the case is metaphorical. See the picture below:
Girl with the Pearl Earring (Enrique Cornejo-Sanchez by way of Vermeer)
Above is a mosaic by Enrique Cornejo-Sanchez of a well-known Western painting — Girl with a Pearl Earring, by the Dutch Master Johannes Vermeer. Upon closer inspection, the painting is composed of a series of fantasy art ’tiles’ from the ’70s and ’80s (think Frank Frazetta!) assembled by Cornejo-Sanchez. When viewed from a distance, the picture looks like the famous painting. Viewed close-up, though, one can see that it is constructed from a multitude of stories. Cornejo-Sanchez is very talented — check out his other art! In a similar fashion, Tribal/Magical v-Meme stories can be used to construct extremely complex knowledge structures, that can mimic the disruptive jumps in knowledge that are much more naturally emergent and inherent in more complex, synergistic social structures.
But two things are also obvious, and inherent in the faux-Vermeer: the primary image is much more vulnerable to corruption of knowledge and intent than the knowledge produced through higher v-Memes; and the facsimile took much longer to construct than if someone had used a paintbrush. In a nutshell, this is why higher v-Meme social structures have such tremendous advantage over lower v-Meme social structures. They can assemble data and get at a predictive truth much faster than the lower v-Memes, making them much more adaptive to change.
In this manner, we can also understand the challenges faced by various faiths in adapting to more modern, empathetically connected times. Ancient shamanism can come up with great truths — but when the oil company is knocking on the forest’s door, it is communitarian organizing and suing them in the Hague that matters.
The easiest to adapt — the Taoists and Buddhists, who at their most developed, demand an individual agency and metacognitive reflection, excluding some of their magical rituals, transfer to the post-modern age with little cognitive dissonance and relative ease. Faiths like Islam, that in their real form are prescriptive governance arising from the 7th Century, are going to have a harder time. Evangelical Christians who are Full Bible adherents are going to have similar difficulties.
Further, faiths with tremendous In-group/Out-group differences are not going to deal well with a transcultural, or probably better said, a transcategorizational/individuational (gender, race, class, etc.) world. Islam is one of the last, great bastions of ingrained In-group/Out-group differences. If you’re a Christian living under Sharia law, or a woman, your world is fundamentally decreed by the divine to be less valued. That obstructs the kind of rational empathetic development and information exchange advanced societies need to function — and if your viewpoint is also extreme or fundamentalist, the modern world holds even further challenges.
One of the biggest that is almost never discussed is the ability of the modern state to enforce laws in a much more rigorous and vigorous way than was possible in the past. Take, for example, speed limits. Back in the ’50s, if you were going to get busted for speeding, it took two cops with a radio and a timing device to nail you. Then came radar guns, then laser guns, and now in many countries, automatic cameras that automatically maintain speed on roadways. And any record you now get is known nationally, or even internationally. Police forces in Western nations increasingly have no discretion on whether to enforce the law. In the United States, there’s even an increasing dispensation with courts and the idea of ‘innocent until proven guilty’. Prosecutorial justice takes the evidence, however generated, and used to force the accused to plea bargain. Something like 95% of all crimes in the U.S. are adjudicated in this fashion. Add to that the fact that in the U.S., your picture is taken some 200 times/day. There is no private space any more, physically, as well as informationally. We are all subject to instantaneous background checks.
Now put yourself in the position of a modern Islamic State. Before, where ambiguity for the prescribed harsh punishments of Sharia Law, such as amputation, crucifixion and beheading were subject to the vagaries of a background tribal culture, leeway could be offered to various communities for the different violations. Now, a dichotomous archaic/ modern state like ISIS has made possible an atmosphere of terror that even the most devout can hardly comprehend. Sharia law is absolutistic in nature. What that means is that if the authorities know, then they must act, or face divine retribution.
No one of less stature than Osama bin Laden recognized this. In his management and direction of Al Qaeda, before his death, he and his cohort were in constant conflict with ISIS over enforcement of hudud (fixed punishments in Islamic Scripture). Osama, believe it or not, said ‘go easy on the tribes’, and focus on development of what might look like a modern welfare state. The ISIS leadership would have none of this, and have shown an increasing penchant for the most drastic of punishments. ISIS leans heavily on the whole concept of terror as decreed in the Qu’ran as being more merciful than not, because it brings communities into line quicker, thus saving more souls (though liberating more in the process!) And they have the tools of the modern informational state with which to apply Allah’s Will.
If we were back in the 7th Century, all of this would likely have been viewed as evolutionary. Instead of treating all women as chattel, women who were kidnapped during raids now had an opportunity for some type of citizenship after being forcibly raped. That doesn’t sound like much of an improvement — but you have to not think with modern sensibilities. The rape was inevitable. Some kind of security for children who were products of that rape were not. As such, though please note!! at a very low level, such standards and rules were relationally progressive.
But in today’s times, they are quite obviously not. Humanity as a whole has advanced, and now such behavior is considered wildly regressive and relationally disruptive. The tragedy of the Yazidi people, running up the mountainside to escape from ISIS troops, who have received religious blessing to rape and enslave them, is viewed by modern society to be monstrous — because, of course, it is. Believe it or not, that is only a higher truth from an evolutionary empathetic perspective.
What this means that Muhammed, when he founded Islam, may have been an enlightened being. His trajectory for him and his subjects was upward, and aimed toward righting many of the wrongs that he saw in the world. Because Islam was fundamentally an instrument of governance as he developed it, it was necessarily v-Meme limited to a Legalistic Authoritarianism, which was a progressive concept at the time in human history.
But the world has moved on from Legalistic Authoritarianism being the most enlightened state a human on this Earth can expect. Buddhism grew in prominence. Zen Buddhism happened. The Protestant Reformation happened. The Western Enlightenment happened. And ISIS is headed in exactly the opposite direction. By contemporary standards, ISIS is tremendously regressive, even by others in the Islamist movement — Osama bin Laden and his lieutenant, Ayman Zawahiri, included! That implies it is also anti-empathetic and devolutionary, which means that it must be run, in this place and time in humanity’s evolution, by psychopaths. There is no rationale in this current media-saturated world for accepting slavery and mass murder. The fact that ISIS is cleverly using ur-v-Memes out of the Qu’ran for manipulation is yet another piece of evidence for empathy-disordered behavior. Such calls out of the distant past as routes for stability in a war-torn, devastated part of the world may have short-term value. But long-term, ISIS cannot expand outside a certain geographic area of ignorance. The v-Memes of the rest of the world are against them.
Additionally, when an organization like ISIS becomes known for ruling with dominant 7th Century behaviors and v-Memes, it is necessarily forced, by its absolutistic position, to swallowing the whole enchilada. This, from a knowledge structure and coherence position, is absolutely devastating. 7th Century Arabia was filled with lots of magical thinking, and arbitrary beliefs. In fact, Muhammad himself struggled against the various tribes in Mecca, who were polytheistic, in attempting to incorporate them into his monotheistic system. Along the way, he had to invent his own set of magical stories — winged steeds included — in order to establish the hegemony of an empire that he would rule. This is not the way toward modern battle planning.
Nothing could be more demonstrative of this kind of nonsense than ISIS’ obsession with a small agrarian village called Dabiq. Dabiq, in Syria, is the place where the decisive battle will be fought with the Christian Crusaders and mark the end of the world. Dabiq WAS the site of a major battle fought in 1516 between the Mamluks and the Ottoman Empire, so it may have some strategic significance. But it is hard to believe that modern Western war planners are going to be constrained in any campaign to roll battle tanks up to Dabiq, stop, and wait for ISIS to show up. Such swallowing of magical thinking creates unreality in any larger war strategy that ISIS may have.
And magical, apocalyptic thinking creates other cognitive dissonances. In his book, The ISIS Apocalypse (where I’ve gotten most of my understanding of the recent ISIS timeline) William McCants discusses ISIS’ misfires in planning events around the return of the Mahdi — the Islamic savior who comes back at the End Times, along with Jesus, and leads the Righteous to victory. Needless to say, the Mahdi hasn’t shown up. And this incessant debate confuses and obstructs any real advances for ISIS on the contemporary battlefield. The moral to the story is that ISIS is headed for collapse. It is only a matter of time. Tribal/Authoritarian v-Memes, with some Legal scaffolding, just can’t cut it in a global society.
But that doesn’t mean that there isn’t some inherent stability in the system. Reports from a variety of sectors indicate that ISIS has at least part of its leadership from the old Baathist Iraqis, and it’s been said multiple times that the worst thing we did when we conquered Iraq was disband the Iraqi Army. Terror is an effective weapon, and no one’s going to gainsay that Saddam’s old buddies didn’t know how to terrorize a local population — in fact, many of the tribes that are incorporated into ISIS caliphate are ones formerly terrorized by Saddam. Meet the new boss — same as the old boss.
The region also has historic precedent for this kind of behavior. The 11th Century Nizari Ismailis, otherwise known as the Assassins, or Hashashin, led by Hassan-I-Sabbah, practiced a devoted, limited fanaticism that sprung from mountain fortresses across much of the same geographic area as ISIS. Spanning the landscape from Northern Syria to their key fortress at Alamut in Iran, the Order of the Assassins, with the same type of fatalistic fervor as seen by today’s suicide bombers, kept Saladin, his successors, and the Ottoman Empire at bay for over 200 years. It is instructive as to how they were defeated. Only through utter devastation by the invading Mongol armies of Genghis Khan were they wiped off the map.
Fast-forward to the present. Though I have been reading and studying ISIS for the last three months, events in Paris, and Beirut show a new internationalist bent to the terror. Similar to the Assassins, ISIS is projecting its activities outward. There are several possible reasons for this. All spring from the strategies documented in the last couple of blog posts on the workings of the psychopathic mind.
First is that ISIS is projecting power and strength by attacking targets away from the Caliphate — the Islamic State declared by ISIS, whose only legitimate ruler is blessed by Allah, and wields the authority of Sharia. Public attacks have the potential to draw recruits to the homeland to fight in the ongoing wars against Bashir Al-Assad, the current dictator running Syria, as well as the Kurds and Iraqis in Erbil and Baghdad respectively. But this is, in my opinion, likely not the real reason. There are likely more psychopathic plans behind the current efforts.
Another effect of the attacks, especially in the West, is to create a powerfully constrained and tenuous environment for the Syrian refugee community. Over 9 million Syrians have fled their homes, and are residing outside the country, or in other displaced locations inside contemporary Syria. Regimes that practice radical control inevitably cause people in their countries to stop reproducing, as well as leave, and ISIS is no different. By triangulation of the Western powers against escape routes into other countries, ISIS in effect ‘backs up’ the escape route pipeline. Further, those refugees who now are backed up in home territories, if they are apostate, can now be enslaved.
Thirdly, the attacks are part and parcel of the core of the delusional apocalyptic fight that ISIS believes is in their favor. The current morass of confusion that exists with the U.S., Russia, Turkey and the Kurds all fighting either an air war, or land conflicts, is not enough to bring on the End Times. For that, there has to be a Roman (read Western) invasion ending up on the plains outside of Dabiq. Forget that prophecy couldn’t predict the existence of fuel-air explosives or A-10 Warthogs. It’s not a party if you don’t send out invitations, and if no one RSVPs. And nothing gets the TV/Internet pundits going like assassinations of civilians.
I am not trivializing the deaths of the hundreds that have died in Paris or Beirut. But the histrionic nature of the coverage is fascinating. The constant drumbeat of the coverage is that “ISIS must be all-powerful” because a handful of people pulled off a handful of attacks at the same time using relatively available weaponry. How many AK-47s are there in the world now, anyway? More than anything, these stories are created to fuel our own Authoritarian/Survival v-Meme narrative. If anyone can hurt us, they must be at least as powerful as we are — instead of viewing things through a more Performance-based v-Meme lens. I’ve always thought that the number of people that pulled off the 9/11 hijackings was far closer to 20 than the 100s, or even 1000s, the media alluded to — namely because it would be much harder to keep a lid on the whole plot with hundreds involved. Performance-based productivity, unfortunately, also applies to goal-driven suicidal hijackers. It would behoove the West to be mindful of this kind of talk, especially if we intend to subscribe to former Secretary of State Colin Powell’s Pottery Barn principle of failed states — you break it, you own it. We have done a miserable job with Iraq in that regard.
What to do about ISIS? I’ve laid down the case that ISIS will expire. The quicker we cut off their energetics, which is, in the modern world, directly related to money, the quicker that will be. There’s no question that ISIS receives broad financial support from similar issue-oriented (those that hate Bashir Assad) and v-Meme backers, like Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Qatar. But the problem with so much of what goes on in the Arab world is that the legitimate regimes are corrupt — either Authoritarian v-Meme, or mixed Tribal/Authoritarians, like Saudi Arabia — using Sharia when convenient to keep the population in check with beheadings at Chop-Chop Square, while at the same time, gambling and living the high life in Monaco. Cutting off the money is an absolute requirement.
Another invasion may well be in the cards. France is very unlikely to let the current incident go without something greater than aerial bombing. The destruction of a Russian jetliner over the Sinai brings another potential set of ground troops into play. And Obama has already committed Special Forces in very limited numbers for reinforcing the Kurds. All these players, provided that they coordinate actions together, may result in a larger global strategy that may combine efforts in a way that will actually help in rebuilding the Middle East.
But we also have to understand that the current U.S. position of hitting the reset button when we are unhappy with a regime that doesn’t exactly represent our interests has to go. Empathetic evolution is a long game to play. And it’s much better to start from Authoritarian, as opposed to Survival v-Meme, if you want to get to some state of Performance-based Legalism. No passing through the magical stage we’re seeing right here with the End-of-the-World types. Because, in the end, empathetic evolution is the only game in town. And Social Physics are, like it or not, the Law.
Further Reading: I’m not as confident as some that there won’t need to be military action to take out ISIS. But I like this piece a lot — it gets at a big hunk of the problem with sophisticated, diversionary politics in the Gulf States.