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The Star - Musings - Looking for certainty and comfort (14 July 2016)
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Looking for certainty and comfort

Preachers can have a tremendous influence on desperate souls looking for answers to their troubles, and the latter may take everything literally.

IT seems as if the last month has been marked by nothing but violence. Beginning with Orlando, Istanbul, then Dhaka and then the killings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, followed by those of several police officers in Dallas, everywhere you looked, there was bloodshed, as if the whole world had gone to war with one another.

And we weren’t spared either. First an apparent first attack by Islamic State at the Movida club and then what seemed like a spate of gunshot killings in Kuala Lumpur’s suburbs.

The Inspector-General of Police became concerned enough about the killings to set up a special taskforce to investigate them.

Meanwhile, reams of articles are written about the profiles and motivations of the perpetrators in Orlando and Dhaka particularly. It turns out that these perpetrators were far more complicated people than any stereotype could predict. Which just goes to show the limitations of profiling anyone.

Indeed, stereotypes were very much defied in the Dhaka attack. Rather than being poor, disaffected youth who might have been led astray by men wearing robes and bearing money, the attackers were in fact young men from upper middle class families, who went to good schools and even studied abroad at private universities in Malaysia.

These were young men who were thought to have everything going for them. Until they started disappearing, only to re-appear carrying out an extremely vicious attack, even killing young people of the same background.

In the investigations into their backgrounds, much has been made about who could have influenced them. Perhaps theirs is an abject lesson in what all human beings need: spiritual succour.

Could it have been that while these kids had every material comfort, what they did not have was comfort for the soul? And so they went looking, and as fate would have it, found the ones that were easiest to understand, where blame could be laid on others, rather than on showing compassion and kindness in order to nurture the soul?

There have been suggestions that some of us have made too much of the influence of particular religious personalities and politicians in creating the sort of climate in which young people get attracted to IS ideologies. This is disingenuous, to say the least.

For one thing, nobody sets out to become a politician or a religious preacher without the aim of influencing people. That is the whole point of these jobs.

Whatever they say is lapped up by many people because it is assumed by the public that what they say must be important simply because of who they are. Politicians can turn what they say into laws and policies which will affect people’s behaviour. For example, if they pass a law that says you must wear seatbelts in the car, you have to do it or face censure.

Religious personalities may not always be able to pass laws but their influence can be even more powerful, because often people assume that what they say is the word of God.

Certainly those who do not have much religious knowledge (and thus far studies have suggested that IS members know very little about religion) are particularly susceptible to whatever they say because they have no other point of reference. They do not see these pronouncements as mere opinion or only one out of many interpretations, only that these words come directly from God’s vessel, the preacher.

It is even more disingenuous to say that those words were misunderstood. A person who does not allow for different interpretations of God’s words in the Quran cannot claim that he can’t help it if people understand his words differently from what was intended. Unless you’re unequivocal about what you mean, you can’t blame others for supposedly misinterpreting what you said.

Supporters of such people claim that they can’t be that influential anyway. Again, this is disingenuous.

If these preachers have only marginal effect on people’s lives, they would not be able to fill arenas with ticket-buying devotees. For sure, some people may go for the halal entertainment value but you never know what desperate soul might go to find answers to his or her own troubles and then take everything literally. After all, these preachers preach certainty. If you follow me, you WILL go to heaven. A potent message, which isn’t limited to Muslims only.

Ironic, isn’t it, that the ones who always call for the banning of Western performers because they might influence our young are also the ones who don’t believe that conservative preachers have any influence at all? At least Beyonce has never told her audience to go out and terrorise anyone.

14 July 2016

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