Wednesday, October 29, 2008

The Sun is Satisfied

“We will die if we do not create gods. We will die if we do not kill them.” - Adonis (Syrian poet)

In the 14th century B.C., a man called Amenhotep changed his name to Akhenaton. With this move, he set about changing the culture of Egypt from one that reveres a pantheon of gods, with "Amon" as the top god, to the worship of a one god, "Aton", the sun.

Akhenaton was not however an average citizen - he was a pharaoh. He was the first monotheist in his world, a revolutionary, in a very traditional society. This king removed the Egyptian gaggle of gods in favour of a one god.
Akhenaton also directed his nation away from imperial ambitions and stopped its aggressive drives against other countries. Instead of pursuing adventures to prevent domestic revolution, he did the opposite.

In the religious field, he did the unthinkable and prohibited the use of the word “gods” in favour of Aton. Indeed, he viewed his god as being for the whole world and not just for Egypt. He did what he could in his time for people to get away from worshipping images in their minds and to permit a greater reality to set in.

Akhenaton suffered from a strange physique, and may have had the genetic disease called "Marfan’s Syndrome" - an ailment that Abraham Lincoln may have also suffered from. Akhenaton represented himself in portraits and sculpture as he really was, deformed – unlike the idealized representations of other pharaohs.

Naturally, Akhenaton ran up against heavy turbulence from the priests of Amon - the elite of Egypt - who despised his changes and fought against him. They ultimately triumphed, destroying his newly-built capital of "Akhetaton" ("Horizon of the Sun") defacing his images.

Some of the benefits of Akhenaton’s revolution nevertheless included:

  • Physicians no longer collected money for expelling evil spirits.
  • Shepherds no longer placed a loaf of bread, or a jar of water, under a tree in order to placate the goddess of the tree.
  • Peasants no longer erected crude images of the gods in the field to drive away the terrible demons of drought and famine.

In case it looks as if Akhenaton’s story sounds like a distant fairy tale, some believe that Moses, who was raised in Egypt and had an Egyptian name, may have been Akhenaton’s contemporary and may have acquired his notions of monotheism from the great pharaoh himself. It is therefore possible that without Akhenaton’s intellectual courage, without his desire and commitment to renew his culture, Judaism, Islam and Christianity - all branches of the Mosaic tree - would not exist as they do today.

It may now be time for new ‘Akhenatons’ in the Middle East - not pharaohs, but people who wish to live without evil spirits, demons and darkness - to cut away the dead wood from the Mosaic tree, and so improve its chances for growth.

Akhenaton means “useful for Aton” and it also means "Aton", or "the sun, is satisfied."

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

The Moulid

Text and Photo in this post copyright John Zada and John Bell 2008

This week the city of Tanta in Egypt's Nile Delta region swells to over 2 million people in the annual moulid celebrating the birth of one of Egypt's most popular saints: the 13th century medieval mystic, Sayyid Ahmed al-Badawi.

Falling at the end of the cotton harvest every year, the festival attracts people from across Egypt and North Africa who come to pay homage to Badawi (1194?-1273?), who travelled to Egypt from Morocco and who made Tanta his home. A mosque in his name, containing the tomb where he is interred, has long been a place of pilgrimage and is at the epicenter of the moulid, which is one of the largest religious festivals in the world.

Spanning several days, the moulid is a veritable carnival that combines musical, religious and amusement park attractions. Men, women and children - whole families - pass the night in Tanta's streets which are transformed by the moulid into labyrinths of florescent lighting, ornate tents and shops selling anything and everything.

Despite the celebration's religious bent, the festival is first and foremost a social occasion where people come out to have fun, forget their problems, and break free - albeit temporarily - from the narrow strictures and controls of a growingly conservative society.

The memory of Badawi, a man whose reality is probably now all but forgotten, is kept alive by a modern personality cult made up of self-styled religious adherents who claim to be working in his spirit, and through his mandate. Large, colourful tents booming with songs, chants and traditional music - blasted through massive speakers - stir worshippers into emotional frenzies. Others, motivated by every manner of want and need, and overcome by emotional outpourings of every sort, flock to Badawi's tomb in search of miracles, favours and redemption.

Watching nearby, and unable to curb the appetites of the masses, are the state-sanctioned religious authorities of al-Azhar and members of the semi-outlawed conservative opposition, the Muslim Brotherhood. They can only roll their eyes in annoyance at so large a flaunting of heterodoxy - one that inspires unease in the minds of those who seek to impose a different flavour of conditioned behaviour and control.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Human Needs and the Lure of Extremism

All text in this post copyright John Bell and John Zada 2008

As the boundaries of our understanding of psychology and human behavior are widened by the work of innovators in those fields, we are provided with new possibilities for perceiving the world around us in ways that may be more in line with reality.

For years, academics in the social sciences looked to socio-economics in their attempt to find an explanation for the powerful appeal of political and religious extremist groups in the Middle East. The idea soon emerged that disenchanted individuals – people with little education and/or few or no means to financially support themselves - were easily lured by militants, and made up the majority of their rank and file.

To many, this explanation seemed straightforward and logical enough. The solution, according to its proponents, was for governments to address the root economic causes of the disenchantment that led to people embracing extremist ideology – including unemployment, poverty, and lack of access to education.

But then something happened to muddy the waters.

Other academics, as well as those in some security services, started pointing to exceptions to this socio-economical approach. Many people, they claimed, who joined militant groups were in fact educated professionals that were known to be from the middle or upper classes. Lack of education and economic opportunity - although a factor in many cases of extremist recruitment - did not fully account for the large numbers of others who were clearly not lacking in education, jobs or money. These others had been suddenly magnetized to “the cause” for some other reason or reasons. Something else had to be at play.

Despite an emerging body of evidence-based research in the fields of the behavioral sciences that bear upon this question, there remains little consensus among academics and policymakers as to what causes some people to be attracted to extremist groups, and others not.

We now know that human beings have a set of clearly defined emotional needs that are as equally important to their well being as their physical needs. It is a person’s attempts to fulfill those needs that largely accounts for much of his or her underlying motives and behaviour in the many areas of life - regardless of how that person views his or her own actions. It is this needs-based approach that is the key to understanding the powerful motive to join an extremist group.

Some of these needs, including the need for a sense of status within social groupings and the need for a sense of competence and achievement, reflects the longstanding view by some social scientists that socio-economic issues including unemployment, poverty and lack of education do in fact play a role in the appeal of extremist groups. The inability to fulfill these needs on their own compel people to connect with others who can offer them the means to realize those needs, but in another way. For instance, a person who can’t derive a sense of competence and status through his or her work, simply because they are unable to find work, will be easily lured by a group or organization that can offer to meet those needs. But it doesn’t end there.

One could have an education, status, and money but still be vulnerable to the appeal of militancy – as demonstrated by privileged individuals who are a part of these organizations. But why would this be the case?

The appeal to join an extremist movement may be amplified for those who lack any or a combination of security, attention, a feeling of control, friendships, community, and meaning and purpose – and other fundamental human needs - because any such grouping will almost inevitably provide just those things for the would-be member. Being handed a gun and given a mandate to combat “evildoers” can provide a very powerful sense of safety, social cohesion, control over one’s destiny, and meaning to those who previously lacked those things - regardless of how well-off they may have been.

If people have their needs met through the healthy outlets of daily life, in a healthy society, by way of a good job, a sufficient income, a safe environment, a social network of family and friends, and a sufficient sense of meaning, they would not need to look elsewhere to have them met and will think twice about joining with others whose outward goals don’t gel with their own. This has always been the fundamental, subconscious, appeal of cults, who in addition to offering to meet certain needs also appeal to a person’s sense of dependency on others, especially authority figures.

Educating people about their needs and the necessity to meet them in a healthy fashion, combined with efforts on the part of governments, and others with influence and resources in the Middle East to foster environments where those needs should not go unmet, would go a long way in reducing the appeal of extremist groups. It would also have the effect of reducing conflicts and ameliorating core issues that provide the raison d’etre for these groups in the first place.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Dhow Repairs

Mending a dhow boat on the Musandam Peninsula of Oman

Photo in this post copyright John Bell and John Zada 2008

Friday, October 3, 2008

´This´ is Jerusalem

This map, posted previously without text and explanation, is what negotiators devise as a possible political solution for Jerusalem - a situation today compounded by the construction of the barrier around 'Greater Jerusalem', separating the city from the West Bank. The reality on the ground would be walls, barriers and separations as per the multi-coloured map above.