"Many of our moral and political policies are designed to preempt what we know to be the worst features of human nature. The checks and balances in a democracy, for instance, were invented in explicit recognition of the fact that human leaders will always be tempted to arrogate power to themselves. Likewise, our sensitivity to racism comes from an awareness that groups of humans, left to their own devices, are apt to discriminate and oppress other groups, often in ugly ways. History also tells us that a desire to enforce dogma and suppress heretics is a recurring human weakness, one that has led to recurring waves of gruesome oppression and violence. Recognition that there is a bit of Torquemada in everyone should make us wary of any attempt to enforce a consensus or demonize those who challenge it."
- Steven Pinker in the introduction to "What is Your Dangerous Idea?" (2007)
Some ideas of my own on the quote:
The ideas that Steven Pinker brings up in his magnificent quote are just now important especially in the world of Islam. Naturally, the same kind of problems naturally beset all strong ideologies. The main problem with Islam is that the things that are seen as right or wrong are (in theory at least) never allowed to change.
In fact, the basic ideas in the society are never even allowed to be evaluated, even if world changes. When the world changes the old ideas do so often become obsolete. This is one of the main reasons why the political Islam is not a fit operating system for a modern society anymore.
In life one just make must choices. The Islamic world faces a choice of clinging on to an out-dated medieval system of thought that oppresses the other half of the society (women) or of putting religion at last into its rightful place as a private matter. When Islamic world has been unchanging and asleep, has the world around them been developing and perfecting new system and tools for running modern, complex societies.
A full-blow secular democracy has an intricate system of checks and balances. Most of all it has an inbuilt error-correction that does require freedom of speech to work. To full make full use of these modern ways of running societies Islamic people need not to give up their religion wholly. They only need to remove religion from the public arena to the private domain. This development has already happened in Europe a long time ago.
Choosing political Islam means also choosing the spiritual world over the real world. Choosing an ancient religion as the basis for building a modern society will inevitably mean that this society will be lagging behind in economical, social and political developments that do happen in the modern democratic world.
Of course, one can decide that upholding religion is more important than economic, social and political progress. However, this decision should be made in full knowledge of all of the possible consequences. By choosing to keep Islam as a basic rule-book for a society one in practice does renounce even the possibility of building up of a stable, just and wealthy society in the modern European model.
By choosing political Islam people just could be choosing material poverty to gain unseen advances in a 'spiritual level', which will never fill your stomach or warm your house. A very simple and undeniable fact is that, at the moment at least, the most wealthy, powerful, just and stable societies are democracies. On the other hand, many Islamic states are among the poorest, weakest, most unjust and most unstable societies on the earth.
Having even strong religious views is not a problem at all as such. It is a problem as long as religion is seen just as a private matter. Problems do just so often arise when unchanging, ancient ideas of an ancient religion are allowed to steer a society. This can happen when this society would, in fact, need urgently to change to follow the changes that happen in the world around it.
This was the process that did become the undoing of the Communist world. Their rigid and change-resistant system of thought prevented change when it was becoming imperative. Largely because of just this failure it could not compete anymore with societies where economic, political and social change were possible.
It is all too easy to forget that even the Islam of the ‘golden age of Islam’ was basically just bad old feudalism in its basic and primitive form. They were societies ruled by a parasitic armed ruling class. These societies had no possibility to change rulers, even if the current rulers happened to be inept, corrupt, greedy or simply stupid. One should after all remember that all leaders can eventually degenerate to this level.
Such inept and corrupt leaders will, of course, occur also in democracies from time to time. The beauty of democracy is they can just be elected away, if the lo quality of current leaders becomes too visible. This inability to correct even flagrant errors was one of the things that did bring down the Islamic empire. A totalitarian, parasitic ruling class in all too often incapable of correcting even the biggest faults in the system. After all, this would normally require the giving up of some of their perks.
The original Islamic empire was eventually splintered into smaller local entities that were ruled by local feudal elites. These elites relied on Islam to deliver the absolute subordination that their feudal rule needed.
The greatest single thing in democracy is the inbuilt method for error-correction that is missing from every single totalitarian system. The lack of error-correction means that totalitarian systems will always be left behind when compared with economic, social and political development in democratic and self-correcting systems in the long run.
You just need to compare the development in the totalitarian Islamic world and Western world during the last hundred years to see what I mean. The biggest drawback of totalitarian systems is that a change of regime in all too often achieved only with the use of violence.
A very basic problem in Islam is the incompatibility of Islam with the ideas of free speech, openness and real self-rule. In reality, the only real alternative to democracy is some form of totalitarianism. Islam has always thrived and blossomed under totalitarian regimes and withered if it is put under the hard light of free speech.
Political Islam just requires total submission to religious authority and that authority can never be questioned in true Islamic systems of government. This is not such a problem if Islam is not allowed to influence decision making in a society and religion is a private matter.
It is not a problem, for example, when Muslims are living in democratic societies, as long as host-society is run according to democratic principles. Unfortunately, as soon the decisions are based on religious principles one is not very often soon not allowed to criticize or even really analyze these decisions.
This will quite inevitably lead to a situation where even most of decision-making in society is beyond free-speech and the error-correction-system inbuilt in democracy will fail. As long as leaving Islam or apostasy is impossible, people in Islamic countries will not be really free. A universally and violently enforced ideology is simply not compatible with real democracy.
However, even Islam can eventually be changed. It cab become a private matter. It can be removed from the public arena , as has already quite happily happened to Christianity in Europe.
Christianity is still there, and those who need it to give comfort and (even if a false) feeling of security can use and dwell in it if they need. However, religion does not shape European societies and does not dictate anymore what Europeans are allowed to say or think. Achieving this state really is one of the very big reasons why Europe is where it is now.
I’m afraid that the very basic problem with Islam is the same thing that was the very basic problem in Communism. The core problem is a belief that there is a single final answer to everything. Most of all there is no room for compromises if the final truth is revealed.
However, the tendency to make compromises is the real secret of the success of the modern democracy. The best answers and solutions very often are amalgams of different ideas. Best answers are so often arrived by a slow, tedious and often tortuous debate on the real merits of different ideas.
The best interests of the society in general are very often not best served by implementing a single grand idea. Best results are so often achieved with endless crafting of compromises that can in the long run give benefits to followers of all classes and ideologies in a society.
If we ever want to see real democracy and prosperity in the Islamic world, the mainstream Islam has to either change. The other option is that it will lose its dominant position in these societies, if it cannot change.
The demand for absolute submission of all members of the society to one set of religious ideas just cannot be in place in a real democracy. This needs to change, if any kind of real democracy is ever to be sought after in Islamic countries. Before this does happen, there is no possibility to have an open debate that a successful democracy requires to work.
(This piece was completely refurbished on 26th of November, 2012)
"Steven Arthur Pinker (born September 18, 1954) is a Canadian-American experimental psychologist, cognitive scientist, linguist and popular science author. He is a Harvard College Professor and the Johnstone Family Professor in the Department of Psychology at Harvard University, and is known for his advocacy of evolutionary psychology and the computational theory of mind. He is the author of six books for a general audience, which include The Language Instinct (1994), How the Mind Works (1997), Words and Rules (2000), The Blank Slate (2002), The Stuff of Thought (2007), and The Better Angels of Our Nature (2011)."