I was angered but not shocked to hear of the attack on Salman Rushdie. I had been expecting it for decades, as indeed had many others. One of the people who was perhaps not expecting it was Rushdie himself, who seemed to leave behind his ‘Joseph Anton’ alter-ego when he came out of hiding over a decade ago.
I was in Turkey when Rushdie was attacked, surrounded by millions of rather secular Muslims, not one of which would have dreamed of harming Rushdie, no matter how devout their adherence to Islam.
It is in any case entirely reductive to attribute the intolerant attack on Rushdie to Islam itself, given the vast variegation of forms, sects, beliefs and levels of strictness in which Islam manifests across all continents and in almost all nations today. Not that this will prevent commentators from being reductive, of course.
My own relationship with Rushdie was brief, seminal and bittersweet. I was a 16 or 17 year old aspirant writer whose first ever written short story was published alongside Rushdie’s own first ever written short story by the legendary editor Giles Gordon in Heinemann’s Best Short Stories 1988.
I met Rushdie around that time, and he signed my copy of the above collection and promised, should I ever complete a novel, to champion it to his agent and publisher, which was very kind. Of course, only a few months later he was in hiding from the kind of people who consider violence a legitimate form of dispute.
So I have a kind of animus against the Ayatollah, whose inability to tolerate critique led to the fatwah, to Rushdie’s long sojourn in hiding, and also inadvertently to my stillborn fiction-writing career. In any case, to paraphrase Christopher Marlowe’s The Jew of Malta, besides, the prick is dead.
But alas his ideas, his rigid version of Islam, is not dead. It lives on like an unthinking virus in the minds of many, including the deluded man who stormed a stage at a literary festival to plunge a knife into Rushdie’s 75 year old neck.
I’m neither a Muslim nor a scholar of Islam, but for me it is hard to escape the conclusion that, like every other religion, Islam comes with a day side and a night side. It has transcendental qualities that elevate humanity, and satanic qualities that divide and bestialise us too.
Both of these faces may be encountered, almost too literally, in the two main characters in Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses, incidentally. Furthermore, we can also see the Satanic version in the depiction of the Ayatollah himself, and in the desacralised prophet Mahound too, recipient of those infamous verses.
I should add that The Satanic Verses is easily Rushdie’s best book, one which presciently examined immigration and religious fundamentalism before they were the only things anyone spoke about. It is often overlooked partly because of the fatwah controversy, and partly because of the enormous popularity of its predecessor, Midnight’s Children. However, you should read it. Firstly because it’s very good indeed, but also because the violent people, the satanic versions of humanity, really don’t want you to.
It’s worth pointing out at the outset that this is less of a polarised binary than it may initially seem, of course, for a whole range of reasons. Firstly we can nibble at the roots of both immediate-to-medium-term predictions. What do we mean by ‘more religious’, exactly? Just because many more people in the next few decades will affiliate as Muslim or Catholic does not necessarily mean that the world will be more fundamentalist in its outlook (though that’s clearly possible.) They may simply affiliate as cultural positions, cherry-picking at dogmas and behaviours.
There’s not a lot of point in asking why about this, to my mind. Probably, issues like relative birth rates between religious communities and non-religious communities has a lot to do with things, I suspect. Geography, along with its varied sociocultural religious traditions, also play a significant role, as do the relative population decline (and geopolitical and cultural wane in influence) of the West, where atheism and agnosticism have been most notably prevalent since the fall of the formally atheistic Communist regimes in 1989/90.
We can similarly query the inevitability of the singularity, though there is absolutely no doubt that currently we are in an a spiral of increasing datafication of our world, as Douglas Rushkoff persuasively argues in his relatively recent neo-humanist book Team Human. And why is the world becoming so? As Rushkoff and others point out, it is in order to feed the development of Artificial Intelligence, which concomitantly makes us more machinic as a consequence. (This is again very well argued by Rushkoff.)
So, on the one hand we have a more religious population coming down the track, but on the other, that population will inhabit a world which requires them to be ever more machinic, ever more transhuman, conceived of as data generators and treated ever more machinically by the forces of hypercapitalism.
Let’s say that, as it looks today, both of these trends seem somewhat non-negotiable. Where does that leave us? A dystopian perspective (or a neo-Marxist one) might be that we will enter some kind of situation wherein a religion-doped global majority are easily manipulated and data-harvested by a coldly logical machinic hegemony (which the current global elite seem, with irrational confidence, to feel they will be able to guide to their own ends and enrichment.)
I feel that such a simple filtering into Eloi and Morlocks is unlikely. Primarily this is because I have (an irrational?) confidence that a degree of rationality is likely to intervene to mitigate the very worst excesses of this binary. Unlike Marx, I don’t consider those of religious faith to be drugged morons, for a start. Some (probably a large majority) of our finest thinkers throughout history into the present day have held religious beliefs which in no way prevented them from innovating in science, philosophy, engineering and cultural thought.
Similarly, I believe the current existence and popularity of leading thinkers expressing a firm affiliation with organic humanism (or to put it more accurately, a deeply suspicious antipathy to the alleged utopia of transhumanism) is a strong indication that a movement in defence of organic humanism is coming to the fore of our collective consciousness, perhaps just in time for us to consider the challenges of potentially imminent rule by the algorithms.
Thinkers like Rushkoff, or Yuval Noah Harari, have clearly expressed this concern, and I believe it is implicit in the work of many other futurists, like Nick Bostrom too. If it wasn’t, we would likely not have had the current explosion of interest in issues like AI ethics, which seek to explore how to mitigate the potential risks of machine disaffiliation from humankind, and ensure fairness to all humans who find more of their lives falling under algorithmic control.
But how might we explain this apparent dichotomy, and how might we mitigate it? Steven Pinker’s recent book Rationality: What It Is, Why It Seems Scarce, Why It Matters may offer some assistance.
Pinker summarises rationality as a post-Enlightenment intellectual toolkit featuring “Bayesian reasoning, that is evaluating beliefs in the face of evidence, distinguishing causation and correlation, logic, critical thinking, probability, game theory”, which seems as good a list as any I could think of, but argues that all of these are on the wane in our current society, leading to the rise of a wide range of irrationalities, such as “fake news, quack cures, conspiracy theorizing, post-truth rhetoric, [and] paranormal woo-woo.”
If, as Pinker argues, rationality is an efficient method mankind has developed in order to pursue our own (organic and human) goals, such as pleasure, emotion or human relationships, then we can conceive of it in terms divorced from ideology, as method rather than ethos. It’s possible, then, to conceive of, for example, people rationally pursuing ends which may be perceived as irrational, such as religious faith.
Pinker believes that most people function rationally in the spheres of their lives which they personally inhabit – the workplace, day-to-day life, and so on. The irrational, he argues, emerges in spheres we do not personally inhabit, such as the distant past or future, halls of power we cannot access, and metaphysical considerations.
Humans have happily and successfully been able to shift between these two modes for most (if not all) of their existence of course. As he rightly points out, there was no expectation to function solely rationally until well into the Enlightenment period. And indeed, we may add, in many cultural circumstances or locations, there still is no such expectation.
Why does irrationality emerge in these spheres we cannot access? Partly it is because the fact that we cannot directly access them opens up the possibility of non-rational analysis. But also, as Pinker notes, because we are disempowered in such spheres, it is uplifting psychologically to affiliate with uplifting or inspiring “good stories”.
We need not (as Pinker might) disregard this as a human weakness for magical thinking. Harari has pointed out that religion functions as one of the collective stories generated by humanity which facilitated mass collaboration and directly led to much of human civilisation.
But if we were to agree, with Rushkoff and contra the transhumanists and posthumanists, that the correct response to an ever more algorithmic existence is not to adapt ourselves to a machinic future, but instead to bend back our tools to our human control, then how might rationality assist that?
As a mode of logical praxis which is nevertheless embedded in and consistent with humanist ideals, rationality could function well as a bridge between organic human values and the encroachment of machinic and algorithmic logic. The problem, however, is how to interpolate rationality into those spheres which lie open to magical thinking.
It’s clear that the retreat into atomising silos of woo-woo, fake news, conspiracies and nonsense is not a useful or coherent response to the rise of the machines. Spheres like the halls of power must therefore be rendered MORE transparent, MORE accountable to the body of humanity, and cease to be the fiefdoms of billionaires, corporations and their political puppets.
However, obviously this is much harder to apply to issues of metaphysical concern. Even rationality only takes us so far when considering things like the nature of love or the meaning of life, those metaphysical concerns which, though ultimately inaccessible, nevertheless engage most of us from time to time.
But mankind developed religion as a response to this a long time ago, and has continued to utilise, hone and develop religious faith as a communal experience, bonding mechanism and mode of collaboration. And religion has stood the test of time in those regards. Not for all, and certainly not for those post-Enlightenment exclusive rationalists (ie agnostics and atheists, a population seemingly destined to play a smaller role in our immediate future, according to current prognoses.)
If the positive ramifications of religion can be fostered, in a context of mutual respect, then it seems to me that there is no inherent contradiction or polarisation necessary. Indeed, a kind of Aquinian détente is perfectly possible. Rationality may be our best defence against an algorithmic hegemony, but rationality itself must acknowledge its own limitations of remit.
As long as the advocates of exclusive rationalism continue to view religious adherents (without distinction as to the form of their faiths or the presence or absence of fundamentalism) as their primary enemy and concern, they are in fact fighting the wars of a previous century, even while the bigger threat is posed by the hyperlogical opponent.
We therefore have a third option on the table, beyond the binary of gleeful acquiescence to algorithmic slavery (transhumanism) or a technophobic and Luddite-like retreat into woo-woo (which is equally no defence to machinic hegemony.) An accommodating rationality, operating as it always did in the spheres we do inhabit, has the potential to navigate this tricky Scylla and Charybdis.
To paraphrase someone who was not without rationality, we could usefully render unto rationality that which is open to rationality, and render unto God (of whatever flavour) that which is for now only open to God.
But we do need to open up some spheres to rationality which currently are not open to most of humanity – the power structures, the wealth imbalances, the blind gallop into faith in the algorithm. Because, pace the posthumanist faith in a benign singularity, there’s no guarantee that machinic merger or domination will preserve us, and even if it does, it will not conserve us as we know ourselves today.
Religion is noisy. Ok, not always. Buddhists like to meditate in silence, for example. But they also like to chant mantras. Most religions have some form of collective ritual singing. And some like to advertise their wares to the public.
Christian churches have used bells to do so for many centuries. In areas with large Jewish populations, like Jerusalem or New York, a siren is sometimes used to warn devout Jews that Shabbat is about to begin, meaning they must cease certain activities. But easily the most prevalent form of religious noise pollution is the Islamic adhan, the call to prayer issued from mosques five times daily.
These days, the world’s four million or so mosques tend to use loudspeakers to project the sound of the muezzin as far as possible. This is, of course, a recent tradition, dating from the 1930s. There was obviously no amplification in the time of the prophet. In an increasingly multicultural (and in many places secularising) world, the sound of the adhan is becoming a divisive issue.
Indeed, even in religiously homogenous locations like Saudi Arabia, the issue of noise pollution has led to legal restrictions on how loud such amplification may be. In a 24/7 world where many people work non-traditional hours, and fewer people adhere to the daily timetable envisaged by traditional Islam, the call to prayer can be actively disruptive, disturbing the sleep of shift workers and irritating non-adherents who may view it as a kind of sonic religious imperialism.
But since the amplification of adhan is not Quranically prescribed, there is of course the possibility that current or future technological developments could help to resolve these issues. The question is the purpose versus the tradition of the call to prayer. If the purpose is to inform Muslims that it is time to pray, this could be done via, for example, a phone app. Sign up for the app, and the phone will recite the adhan to you at the designated times. This technology is already possible.
However, tradition dicates that the call to prayer must emanate from the mosque itself, sung by a muezzin. Of course, in reality, this doesn’t always quite happen. Very often, as the telltale bleeps at the end indicate, the adhan is a recording, transmitted from a mobile phone to the amplification system. No one is actually singing live from the minaret in most instances.
Tradition would be satisfied by a return to the pre-1930s days of live muezzins singing the adhan without amplification. Purpose could be satisfied by an adoption of modern telecommunications technology. Neither of these things are currently happening however, and instead we see the outbreak of often impassioned debate over the noise levels of amplified recordings from mosques.
Indonesian authorities, who have in the past jailed people from complaining about the noise levels of mosques, nevertheless accept that in many cases the call to prayer is significantly over-amplified in an attempt to reach as far as possible, leading to distortion as well as sound overlap when multiple mosques are broadcasting slightly out of synch.
Arguments about permission to broadcast the adhan in traditionally non-Islamic locations, or about the volume levels in many Islamic locations like Indonesia or Saudi, tend to run passionately. Allegations of Islamophobia or NIMBYism are sometimes used to drown out legitimate concerns, such as the annoyance to non-adherents and secular populations in multicultural communities, or the disruption to shift workers, infants and others who need to sleep when the call to prayer is blaring. There have been such complaints in America, Israel, Britain, Germany and many other places already.
We are likely to see more of such arguments in the future as Islam is the fastest growing religion worldwide, and is increasingly gaining footholds among communities which do not adhere to the religion.
So the question remains – if the purpose is to alert Muslims to prayer times, why not use contemporary technology to do so in a non-obtrusive manner? Or alternatively, why is it not acceptable to return to the traditional form of live unamplified singing which was the sole mode of the adhan for centuries?
The answer may be that the adhan has become in some locations a kind of proselytisation in itself, or to put it another way, an attempt to Islamise the soundscape of an area. It is this suspicion which provokes resentment and reaction among non-Islamic and secular populations. If so, it’s a self-defeating form of proselytisation. Few people are likely to be persuaded by becoming irritated, or woken in their sleep.
The future for the call to prayer is likely to remain fraught in many places until mosques start looking at the 20th century technology they currently use, and either consider how to update that technology in less obtrusive ways, or else revert to the traditional method of live unamplified singing, which is aesthetically pleasing and offensive to no one but actual Islamophobes.
Allah (PBUH) after all is unlikely to be impressed by overamplified and distorted fuzzy recordings.
I carry Neanderthal DNA in my body. I am one of the modern humans, homo sapiens sapiens, who are descended from hybrid cross-hominid fertilisation that likely occurred somewhen during the overlap of populations in paelolithic Europe.
Of course, that side of the family died out a long time ago, leaving my sapiens ancestors to colonise Europe and indeed everywhere else on the planet.
I often wonder what we lost when we lost our hominid relatives – the Neanderthals, the Denisovans, the hobbit-like Homo Floriensis and so on. What might a world of multiple hominid species be like? How might we have accommodated our stronger, carnivorous and less gracile Neanderthal population? What might our tiny cousin with grapefruit-sized heads, the Floriensis hobbits, have contributed to our world?
Anyhow, the more I ponder the roads not taken, the less impressed I have become with our own boastful claims and achievements. Not simply because human achievement increasingly has come at the expense of all other species (initially the large mammals, then our fellow hominids, and now basically everything else). But also because even those achievements, it seems to me, may not really be ours to claim.
Air flight, modern medicine, computers? For sure. We made those. But let’s go back upstream to the origins of civilisation to see whose civilisation is it really?
Neanderthals used fire. Indeed, probably homo erectus, the ur-granddaddy of hominids used fire. Fire is a major issue. No other animal uses it. Most run terrified from it. But hominids tamed it, and found ways to use it for cooking and heat. If there’s one development which most explains why hairless apes like us and not, say, the gorillas or big cats rule this world, it is probably the taming of fire.
Neanderthals also buried their dead. This is a sobering thought really. In some senses so do elephants, and other species also demonstrate evidence of mourning, loss and grief. We may feel that grief is one of the things which makes us human, but it’s not an exclusively human sentiment. Even taking it to the point of ritual behaviour – burial – is not exclusive to us.
But what of the other foundational components of human culture and society? What about clothing, art, science, religion?
Well, Neanderthals made jewellery from seashells and animal teeth. Neanderthals created artwork on cave walls. Neanderthals invented musical instruments, specifically bone flutes. We can presume they knew how to beat on drums or rocks rhythmically too. After all, they also had hand axes, which would have been made and used with such rhythmical hitting. Neanderthals built stone shrines, and where there are shrines, it is highly likely that ritualistic behaviour took place.
Neanderthals used lissoirs, and hence invented hide preparation, and hence clothing. They invented glue and string and throwing spears which they used to hunt large game. These hunts required collective action and collaboration. Recent evidence suggests that Neanderthals may even have learnt to count and actually recorded their counting by notching scratches on bones.
So perhaps this isn’t OUR civilisation at all, when you think about it. Perhaps we are thieves living in someone else’s house, whom we murdered, looking at their achievements and claiming them as our own.