Demonology in Gaza: Epistemological and Agnotological Sources of Ummatic Kufr

Dr. Robert D. Crane

Posted Jan 22, 2009      •Permalink      • Printer-Friendly Version
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Demonology in Gaza: Epistemological and Agnotological Sources of Ummatic Kufr

by Dr. Robert D. Crane

Earlier this week, a friend of mine called from Tripoli, Libya, to ask my advice on a position paper he had written in an effort to explain how an entire people could support the horrors of the recent crimes against humanity in Gaza.  He was stymied, because the facts on the ground were beyond his comprehension. 

There are two answers to his quandary.  The first is the simple answer that not all Jews supported the invasion and certainly not the unimaginable cruelties that resulted. They were sympathetic to the cause of secular Zionist fundamentalism because they had existential angst about their own survival in a hostile sea of Arabs who claimed the land that the Zionists claimed as their own inheritance.  In order to justify the Zionist agenda they had to demonize all opponents.  Once one has done this, anything goes. 

The second answer is that even the question is immoral because it is based on the unstated premise of assumed collective guilt.  Saint Augustine taught that no-one can deliberately choose evil.  One must first present it to oneself as good.  If a government with at least a minimum of accountability to the citizens of a country demonizes another nation or religion, and if the citizens buy this propaganda, is everyone guilty?  Saint Augustine’s theory of human thought and action is not universally true, but it is true for most people most of the time.  This raises the question whether individual Jews, or Muslims, or anyone else, are guilty of their own self-imposed ignorance.

This, in turn, raises the more generic issue of whether all Jews are what extremist Muslims call “infidels,” based on their perverted understanding of the term kufr in the Qur’an.  These Muslim extremists are distorting the Qur’an by demonizing Jews in a form of collective guilt, which is probably the most serious crime against humanity other than deliberately attacking another human being with phosphorous so that it will keep burning all the way to the bone until the victim is consumed over a period of hours, days, or even years by fire.  This demonic use of fire is forbidden generically in classical Islam as an instrument of defense or deterrence, which is why the leading ayatollahs in Iran last year issued a fatwa forbidding even the possession of nuclear weapons. 

The extremists’ use of the term kufr to describe those they have demonized as destined for hell is perhaps the worst form of assigning collective guilt, because it denies others the right to define their own religion and because it denies the legitimacy of religions other than their own in the plan of God.  Muslims, of all people, should be aware of this phenomenon as its principal victims.

The Qur’anic use of the term kufr implies conscious intent to hide what one, either by instinct or reason, knows to be true.  The noun “kafir” (pl. kaffirun or kuffar), does not refer to persons or communities that are sincere in their search for truth.  This is why the translation of the root ka-fa-ra as infidel, especially in reference to Christians, Jews, and Buddhists, is an extremist and cruel misinterpretation of the term.  In traditional Roman Catholic moral theology, the term to describe non-Catholics is “invincibly ignorant.” Muslims do not describe all non-Muslims as ignorant but merely as followers of other paths that are legitimate in the pluralist plan of God for sentient life in the universe.  God revealed in the Qur’an that everyone has the same obligation therefore to compete in doing good (salihat) “as in a race.”

Muhammad Asad summarizes the classical Islamic position well in his extensive footnotes to his translation of the Qur’an.  In his note to Surah al Muddaththir 74:10 he writes:

“Since this is the earliest Qur’anic occurrence of the expression kafir (the above surah having been preceded only by the first five verses of surah 96) its use here – and, by implication, in the whole of the Qur’an – is obviously determined by the meaning which it had in the speech of the Arabs before the advent of the Prophet Muhammad: in other words, the term kafir cannot be simply equated, as many Muslim theologians of post-classical times and practically all Western translators of the Qur’an have done, with “unbeliever” or ‘infidel’ in the specific, restricted sense of one who rejects the system of doctrine and law promulgated in the Qur’an and amplified by the teachings of the Prophet – but must have a wider, more general meaning. This meaning is easily grasped when we bear in mind that the root verb of the participial noun kafir (and of the infinitive noun kufr) is kafara, ‘he’ [or ‘it’] covered [a thing]: thus, in 57:20 the tiller of the soil is called (without any pejorative implication) kafir, ‘one who covers,’ i.e., the sown seed with earth, just as the night is spoken of as having covered’ (kafara) the earth with darkness. In their abstract sense, both the verb and the nouns derived from it have a connotation of ‘concealing’ something that exists or ‘denying’ something that is true. Hence, in the usage of the Qur’an – with the exception of the one instance (in 57:20) where this participial noun signifies a ‘tiller of the soil’ – a kafir is ‘one who denies [or ‘refuses to acknowledge’] the truth’ in the widest, spiritual sense of this latter term: that is, irrespective of whether it relates to a cognition of the supreme truth – namely, the existence of God – or to a doctrine or ordinance enunciated in the divine writ, or to a self-evident moral proposition, or to an acknowledgment of, and therefore gratitude for, favours received.”

Commenting by reference to his footnote 6 for Surah al Baqara 2:7, Asad adds:

“In contrast with the frequently occurring term al-kafirun (those who deny the truth’, the use of the past tense in alladhina kafaru indicates conscious intent, and is, therefore, appropriately rendered as ‘those who are bent on denying the truth.’ This interpretation is supported by many commentators, especially Zamakhsharï (who, in his commentary on this verse, uses the expression, ‘those who have deliberately resolved upon their kufr’. Elsewhere in the Qur’an such people are spoken of as having ‘hearts with which they fail to grasp the truth, and eyes with which they fail to see, and ears with which they fail to hear’.” (7:179).

An important refinement in the question of kufr is the distinction between the individual person and groups of persons, ranging from the nuclear family to entire nations.  Every person has an obligation known as fard ‘ain to seek truth and practice it in the form of justice.  Whoever does not is a kafir.  Every group of people, such as a nation, has an independent obligation, known as fard kifaya, to do the same thing.  There is no such thing as collective guilt, but everyone has a responsibility to use one’s own knowledge and energy to shape the community so that it can better seek and practice justice.  This is what Father Feree, the mentor of the Just Third Way, referred to as the duty to organize as a group or within a group, because failure to organize is a failure of one’s individual obligation of fard ‘ain.  The success of community action is not one’s personal responsibility, but one’s personal efforts to organize in community is.

Here is where the theory of agnotology comes in, which is the study of collective ignorance inspired by individuals with a selfish agenda contrary to the best interests of the community.  Perhaps the greatest challenge to human dignity is the centralization of governmental power in the modern age of information overload in pursuit of special-interest kufr on behalf of “freedom.”

Agnotology can be defined as “Culturally constructed ignorance, purposefully created by special interest groups working hard to create confusion and suppress the truth.”

Writing on January 19th, 2009, in Wired Magazine, Clive Thompson quotes the Stanford University historian of science, Robert Proctor, as follows:  “When it comes to many contentious subjects, our usual relationship to information is reversed: ignorance increases.”

Thompson relates that, “Proctor has developed a word inspired by this trend: agnotology.  Derived from the Greek root agnosis, it is ‘the study of culturally constructed ignorance’. As Proctor argues, when society doesn’t know something, it’s often because special interests work hard to create confusion. Anti-Obama groups likely spent millions insisting he’s a Muslim; church groups have shelled out even more pushing creationism. The oil and auto industries carefully seed doubt about the causes of global warming. And when the dust settles, society knows less than it did before.”

“People always assume that if someone doesn’t know something, it’s because they haven’t paid attention or haven’t yet figured it out,” Proctor says. “But ignorance also comes from people literally suppressing truth—or drowning it out—or trying to make it so confusing that people stop caring about what’s true and what’s not.”

“After years of celebrating the information revolution, we need to focus on the countervailing force: the disinformation revolution. The ur-example of what Proctor calls an agnotological campaign is the funding of bogus studies by cigarette companies trying to link lung cancer to baldness, viruses—anything but their product. 

“Think of the world of software today: tech firms regularly sue geeks who reverse-engineer their code to look for flaws. They want their customers to be ignorant of how their apps work.  Even the financial meltdown was driven by ignorance.  Credit-default swaps were designed not merely to dilute risk but to dilute knowledge; after they’d changed hands and been serially securitized, no one knew what they were worth.

“Maybe the Internet itself has inherently agnotological side effects.  People graze all day on information tailored to their existing worldview. And when bloggers or talking heads actually engage in debate, it often consists of pelting one another with mutually contradictory studies they’ve Googled: ‘Greenland’s ice shield is melting 10 years ahead of schedule!’ vs. ‘The sun is cooling down and Earth is getting colder!’

“As Farhad Manjoo notes in True Enough: Learning to Live in a Post-Fact Society, if we argue about what a fact means, we’re having a debate. If we argue about what the facts are, it’s agnotological Armageddon, where reality dies screaming.

“Can we fight off these attempts to foster ignorance?  Despite his fears about the Internet’s combative culture, Proctor is optimistic. During last year’s election, campaign-trail lies were quickly exposed via YouTube and transcripts. The Web makes secrets harder to keep. 

“We need to fashion information tools that are designed to combat agnotological rot.  Like Wikipedia: It encourages users to build real knowledge through consensus, and the result manages to (mostly) satisfy even people who hate each other’s guts.  Because the most important thing these days might just be knowing what we know.”

As I commented in my position paper, “Information Explosion and Ignorance’, published four years ago in on April 28, 2005:

“Increasingly, media analysts are theorizing that the era of the information explosion at the turn of the millennium may make people more ignorant than they were before they had expanded access to objective knowledge.  The theory is that the more people have individual control over what they read the more they will narrow their reading to whatever agrees with their own prejudices.

“We see this in most e-groups.  Not only are the new members already in agreement with the bias of the particular e-group, but the longer they are members the more biased they become until they become really extremists and finally only the extremists remain active in the group.  The others withdraw to “lurking” status or drop out.  The drop-outs then go on to some other group, which then may repeat the process.
“In the latest, April 2005 issue of New Atlantic magazine, Senior Editor Christine Rosen’s article, ‘The Age of Egocasting,’ explores the growing trend toward customized entertainment through digital devices like TiVo and iPod.  Even a glance at highway billboards reminds one of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World or what used to be only in science fiction.

“The growing trend toward customizing one’s interaction with the world may be strengthened by the common fear of loss of control in an era of both visual and audio overload.  According to Michael Bull of the University of Sussex in England, ‘People like to be in control.  They are controlling their space, their time, and their interaction. ... that can’t be understated - it gives them a lot of pleasure.  Those people with white wires dangling from their ears might be enjoying their unique life soundtrack, but they are also practicing ‘absent presence’ in public spaces, paying little or no attention to the world immediately around them’. The same is true of cell-phones, which is why they are dangerous in cars.

“This all leads to what one might might call the age of mass autism in which everything and everyone is so self-referential that all experience merely isolates one ever further from reality.  Rosen recalls the beginning of this trend in the 1980s when narrow-casting emerged with networks catering to specific interests, and the subsequent technologically driven era during the 1990s of 150 and finally 500-channel TV access.  In the new millennium we have reached the era of egocasting where in effect everyone can invent one’s own TV channel and never listen to anything outside it.  This is a world of near total control of what we watch and what we hear.  This differs from 1984 in that each person is the ultimate censor, not ‘Big Brother’ in the form of Big Government or Big Business.

“As sociologists Walker and Bellamy have noted, ‘media audiences are seen as frequently selecting material that confirms their beliefs, values, and attitudes, while rejecting media content that conflicts with these cognitions.’ University of Chicago law professor Cass Sunstein engaged this dilemma in his book,  Sunstein argues that our technologies - especially the Internet - are encouraging group polarization. ... Borrowing the idea of ‘The Daily Me’ from M.I.T. technologist Nicholas Negroponte, Sunstain describes a world where ‘you need not come across topics and views that you have not sought out.  Without difficulty, you are able to see exactly what you want to see, no more and no less’.”

When my Libyan friend perceives that all Jews demonize Arabs and Muslims, he should beware of the temptation reciprocally to demonize all Jews.  Otherwise, he may become ensnared by the epistemological and agnotological sources of ummatic kufr.