Monday, June 25, 2012

On the Perceived Directionality of the World

In the past few months I have been fortunate to be able to visit some places in which Salafi Islam has a strong following - countries like Somalia, Afghanistan and the Kashmir valley in India. It was when I was sitting in a tea shop having strong Somali tea and chatting with some Somali elders on a quiet Friday morning in Hargeisa, that it suddenly occurred to me.

But first some background - Salafi (aka Wahabi) Muslims follow the most purist version of Islam. To the extent they are known in the West, it is because of Salafi organizations like Al Qaida and the Taliban. A lot has been written about the massive funding by Saudi and Yemeni billionaires of Madrassas (religious schools) across the Muslim world, which draw from the large population of poor and marginalized slum-dweller families - offering their children free "education", along with pride, a sense of meaning and belonging in return for following a version of Islam that forbids any original thinking and emphasizes a non-debatable literal interpretation of the Koran and Sharia law. These Madrassas pour out a torrent of skill-free, unemployable and religiously zealous youth into the environment every year. The number of Salafi Islam followers is growing extremely rapidly across the Muslim world - from the Mindanao in the Philippines to northern Nigeria, from Gaza to Kandahar, it is everywhere.

Most Salafi Muslims, like most people of other lifestyles, are good people. They want to live an honorable and moral life, bring bread to their families and be respected. This is certainly true of the Salafi Muslims I had an opportunity to meet and converse with.

So why is there such a huge chasm of mistrust between the rest of the world (which I will call here the "mainstream") and Salafi Muslims? The world has many different cultures and belief systems - Buddhists and Muslims, Hindu and Christians, Jews and animists, but nowhere is there such a complete mistrust and suspicion as the relationship between Salafi Muslims and all non-Muslims. And the feelings are certainly mutual.

There is a certain variable, which I will call "the Perceived Directionality of the World" which I now know is not well understood, and I believe lies at the foundation of this mutual mis-understanding.

Most "mainstream" people (myself and all of my Muslim friends included) are what I would call Forwardists. Our basic view of the world and of history is that the world is moving forward, improving. With every new version of iPhone or Android, with every percentage growth in GDP, with every new freeway, with every dictator toppled, we are making progress. We enjoy looking back at our life time, or at the past 100 or 500 years, and taking count of the progress we've made. It is quite huge indeed.

This Forwardist view of the world was not always the dominant view - until very recently, most people were what I call Cyclicists. A few years ago, I spent several months researching the lives of Jews in Lithuania in the 18th and 19th centuries (and while I was at it - I built the family tree, starting from my direct family, of 50,000 people of that community - you can find it on It became very clear that until around 1870 more or less - the life of this community was very cyclical - people were born, lived and died in the same small town, and more often than not continued the same occupation as their parents. This was probably the state of the vast majority of people in the world until that time or even well into the 20th century, and still is for many people who live a traditional life of subsistance farming in Sub Saharan Africa and Asia. The basic perception of life is that it is cyclical - the cycle of seasons, the cycle of life and death, and the cycle reincarnation in the Eastern religions. Indeed, Buddhism, for example, is all about these cycles. Perhaps it was best put by King Shlomo (Solomon), the great Jewish king (970-928 BCE) "מה שהיה הוא מה שיהיה, מה שנעשה הוא מה שיעשה, ואין חדש תחת השמש" (translation: "what was is what will be, what was done is what will be done, and there is nothing new under the sun").

Salafists, on the other hand, are Backwardists. They believe that the perfect state of the world occurred some time in the past - specifically, during the life of Prophet Mohammad and his direct followers, who lived a perfectly moral life. Ever since, with each generation, the Muslim civilization has been deteriorating. They basically feel a strong urge to hit the brake pedal and stop the deterioration of the world, and then put all the effort into reversing its course back to a state of high morality. They do so by repeatedly scrutinizing their own societies for impurities, and eliminating them. Taliban in Afghanistan and Al Shabab in Somalia eliminated music, football, any contact between men and women, and having fun in general. With every impurity removed, Salafists feel a sense of satisfaction that they are moving closer to a highly moral world, and promptly turn to look for the next impurity to eliminate - creating a cycle that is observed by outsiders to be an ever-increasing level of extreme Islamic fundamentalism. Salafits have a strong intuitive feeling that anything new is by definition bad, and that new ideas are dangerous to morality. Therefore, they surround themselves by metaphorical and societal walls to protect from change and new ideas.

In this difference in the perceived directionality of the world, lies the foundation of the mis-trust. Well-meaning mainstreamers that try to promote "Development", "Economic Progress", need to realize that these terms are essentially Forwardists in nature - they assume the listener intuitively thinks that moving forward ("development", "progress") is a good thing. Lots of people out there don't agree.

Side note: Salafists Muslims are the largest and most visible group of Backwardists, but they are certainly not unique - one can observe the same perception of directionality among groups such as Ultra-Orthodox Jews, the Amish and others.


  1. Just as a related note:
    My cog-sci-studying wife points out there are cultures where the past/future difference plays out even linguistically (that is, the future is behind us and the past in front of us):

  2. Isn't most of Christianity about going back to the days of Eden before the Fall? Many Hindus believe that this "Kali yuga" (time period) is the worst of all. This "yuga" was preceded by other "yugas" where things were better.

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