The Neurotic Misery of Islamic Civilization
9 March 2013
A Psychodynamic Account of Contemporary
Islam and its Place in Civilizational Seriation
Some time ago in From Neurotic Misery to Ordinary Human Unhappiness I discussed a famous Freud quote. The quote runs as follows:
…much will be gained if we succeed in transforming your hysterical misery into common unhappiness. With a mental life that has been restored to health, you will be better armed against that unhappiness.
After this, in Miserable and Unhappy Civilizations, I suggested that Freud’s distinction between neurotic misery and ordinary human unhappiness can be applied not only to individuals but also to social wholes. Thus it makes sense to speak of neurotically miserable civilizations as compared to civilizations possessing merely ordinary levels of human unhappiness.
Then I went yet further afield in Agriculture and the Macabre, in which I tried to make the case the agricultural civilization is particularly vulnerable to neurotic misery. While industrial-technological civilization certainly has its problems and its limitations, whatever may be said of it, it is not macabre and retrospective in the way that agricultural civilization is.
I have been even more specific in identifying the religious wars of Early Modern Europe (also corresponding with the witch craze) as the nadir of Western civilization and as a paradigm case of a civilization in the grip of neurotic misery. Eventually Western civilization grew out of its neurotic misery, although not without an unprecedented level of carnage, and today Western civilization is a fine representative of ordinary human unhappiness as the basis for civilization. Not very exciting, but it’s better than the alternative.
Islam, as an historical phenomenon, is several hundred years behind Christianity in its development. I do not intend this statement to in any way imply that there is anything intrinsic to Islam that keeps its development behind that of Christendom, but there is the historical fact that, of these two religious traditions of the masses, Islam was promulgated six hundred years later than Christianity. Christianity had already been at its internecine squabbles for hundreds of years when Mohammad performed the Hijra to Medina to found the first Muslim community.
The strife we see today in Islam is the sign of a civilization — Islamic civilization — in the grip of neurotic misery. This situation did not come about suddenly, and it is not going to go away suddenly. It is a narrative that must unfold over a period of hundreds of years, and, as I recently wrote in Why tyranny always fails but democracy does not always prevail, Homo non facit saltum — Man makes no leaps. All development is evolutionary.
The trend toward the neurotic misery of Islamic civilization has been developing for quite some time. Charles Doughty, who traveled through Arab lands in the nineteenth century, frequently comments on the fanaticism of his hosts, as, for example, in this passage:
“The high sententious fantasy of ignorant Arabs, the same that will not trust the heart of man, is full of infantile credulity in all religious matter; and already the young religionist was rolling the sentiment of divine mission in his unquiet spirit.”
Charles Montagu Doughty, Travels in Arabia Deserta, Volume 1, Cambridge, 1888, p. 95
“I wondered with a secret horror at the fiend-like malice of these fanatical beduins, with whom no keeping touch nor truth of honourable life, no performance of good offices, might win the least favor from the dreary, inhuman, and for our sins, inveterate dotage of their bloodguilty religion. But I had eaten of their cheer, and might sleep among wolves.”
Op. cit., p. 502
Such passages are most unwelcome today, and many would regard them as an embarrassment better forgotten, but I suspect that Charles Doughty knew a great deal more about Arabia than many an Arabist today. Rather than taking such remarks as a sign of Doughty’s racism, we might take them in historical context as intimations of what was to come. And historical context is crucial here, since precisely the same thing would no doubt have been in found in Christendom in a parallel historical context. I have no doubt that if a worldly and learned Muslim visited Europe one or two hundred years before Europe’s religious wars, he would have found much the same thing. In fact, Montesquieu depicted exactly this after Europe’s neurotic misery in his epistolary novel The Persian Letters.
A recent feature in Foreign Policy magazine, It’s Not About Us by Christian Caryl (20 February 2013) about intra-Islamic relations, and especially the split between Sunni and Shia branches of Islam, is an exposition of the extent to which Islam is as much at war with itself as with the infidel — exactly like Christendom during its period of neurotic misery. It is well known that militant Jihadis sympathetic to Al Qaeda tend to be Sunni, while the Persians and minority communities throughout the Arab world are Shia, and that there are radical elements on both sides of this divide who are vying to be recognized as the vanguard to militant Islam in the contemporary world. These sectarian divides within Islam frequently correspond to divisions in political power and economic influence, making the religious quarrel indistinguishable from broader social conflicts (again, like early modern Europe). And why should social groups contest with each other to be recognized as the vanguard of Islamic radicalism? Because there is a social consensus that radical Islamism is the telos of civilization.
Just as there were many sane and rational men who lived through Christendom’s neurotic misery (Michel de Montaigne comes to mind, for example), so too there are many sane and rational Muslims in our age of Islam’s neurotic misery — but it would be dishonest to pretend that the exceptions to the rule are anything other than exceptions. When almost everyone agreed that “spectral evidence’ could be admitted in the trials of individuals accused of witchcraft, we must acknowledge that there existed at that time a social consensus that this is what constituted “justice.” And so, too, today, when polls reveal that a majority of Muslims will not condemn atrocities and acts of terrorism carried out in the name of Islam and Jihad, we must acknowledge that there is a social consensus that such acts are widely considered to be permissible, if not encouraged — no matter the reasonable few who are rightly horrified.
I have learned that when talking about the scales of history that apply to civilization and big history that one must go out of one’s way to emphasize that these are not events or movements that can be observed in a single human lifetime. Christianity’s buildup to its own neurotic misery required hundreds and hundreds of years of development; the actual period of neurotic misery lasted as much as two centuries, and the whole episode is still, hundreds of years later, being put behind us. It doesn’t matter how much you might want things to be tied up neatly in your lifetime — if you’re going to discuss these great forces that shape civilizations, you have to get used to the idea that it’s not like observing the life cycles of fruit flies.
Astronomers, who similarly work on very long time scales, have the same difficulty in explaining themselves and getting others to understand in a visceral sense the elapse of eons. The astronomer reconstructs the dynamic history of a universe that seems, to us, to be standing still, by looking in all different directions in the sky and observing different kinds of celestial bodies at different stages of development. The astronomer must then put all these fragments of cosmological history together on one large canvas that he will never himself see in a lifetime, but which he sees in his mind’s eye.
When archaeologists similarly survey different sites and find pottery in different stages of development in different places, they try to put it all together with the movements of ancient peoples. This assembly of a structure in time is called seriation. The astronomer engages in cosmological seriation. (The Hertzsprung–Russell diagram is the seriation of stellar evolution.) The student of civilization and of big history, engages in civilizational seriation.
We observe but a single slice of time — the present — and from this single slice of time we attempt to reconstruct the whole of the continuum of time. Ultimately, this is a project of temporal seriation.
The limited temporal horizon of most contemporary commentators on political strife makes it impossible to seem the larger patterns revealed by civilizational and temporal seriation, and so they make elementary errors of historiography. And not only in politics, but in every aspect of civilization. I have repeatedly tried to point out the misunderstandings in the media of China’s “peaceful rise,” which is really China’s industrial revolution.
Have I repeated myself a sufficient number of time to make my point? I doubt it. But i will keep at it, reminding the reader at every turn that the perspective of Big History cannot be assimilated to the personal experience of time, and that one must pursue a strategy of temporal seriation to see larger patterns that do not reveal themselves to the eye.
One of these larger patterns is the pattern of the development of religion as a mass social phenomenon, and among mass religions one pattern is that of passing through a stage of neurotic misery on the way to the mature expression of religion within a civilization that does not cripple that civilization.
Religion begins with something as small and as personal as a superstition or a ritual observance. Eventually it becomes a system of mythology, and once the system of mythology is systematically integrated with the state structures of agricultural civilization religion becomes a principle of social order and a locus of conflict. This conflict must play itself out until civilization gropes its way toward a social principle consistent with the change and diversity that makes a state successful in an age of industrialized economies. All of this takes time — much more time than any one individual can observe in a lifetime. (There, I’ve repeated myself again.)
The neurotic misery of Islam will persist for hundreds of years, as the neurotic misery of Christendom persisted for hundreds of years. There are perhaps ways to ease the transition and lessen the suffering, but we cannot simply leap over this unpleasantness. It must be worked on in real time, just as a patient on the psychiatrist’s couch must work his way through painful early memories before he can simply be unhappy instead of being neurotically or hysterically miserable.
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