The power of belief —Munir Attaullah

The bitter pill of truth need must first dissolve in the sweet solvent of our beliefs before it can be absorbed into the bloodstream of our reality; otherwise it is thrown up in an involuntary spasm

It offends my sensibilities and drives me nuts having to accept the hard reality that belief can so easily overpower reason.

But what really rubs salt into my wounds is how even the most bizarre beliefs are sought to be anchored in allegedly rational arguments. That, by itself, may not be difficult to understand. For, we all — and nearly always — give reasons (good, bad, or spurious) to support our views. However, is it not supremely ironic that reason itself is thus used to justify unreason?

And if you think that is bad enough, should we not despair when that felony is further compounded by devious means? Of course, the most glaring example of what I am talking about here is the nature of religious discourse, especially as conducted in Pakistan. The ulema never just simply say this is our ‘belief’, full stop. For, that leaves open the retort that that may well be your ‘belief’ but mine is different, full stop.

No. They always produce weighty reasons in support of ‘beliefs’ in order to justify them as ‘truths’. But do you think anyone who might have the temerity to disagree with them, or think their reasoning fallacious, has the same freedom to give his reasons? Elsewhere in the world, maybe; but certainly not here.

I got thinking (again!) about this ancient philosophical (and practical) conundrum because of the recent 9/11 anniversary, and some other happenings that raise the same issue of principle. For, the power of the media to shape and influence our beliefs is now awesome. And the internet is an increasingly powerful tool for the dissemination of valuable information, and vicious disinformation.

What robust mechanisms are, or should be, available — beyond the feeble freedoms of rebuttal and legal redress that are only effective in advanced societies — against the unscrupulous misuse of such power?

Take the case of that ex-minister with the fake PhD, the man with the 21st century’s most famously ingratiating permanent smirk, who now has a flourishing career as a host of religious programmes on a well known TV channel. In a recent programme, his panellists (and the host clearly agreed with them) specifically targeted the minority Ahmadi community, and unanimously declared them to be wajib-ul-qatl. What action the government, or the TV channel, took against such serious and open preaching of hatred and incitement to murder, I do not know. I think, none. However, what one does know of were the consequences: within days, three innocent members of the community, all well respected citizens, were killed by unknown gunmen.

The president, before his election, was subjected to a crude, vile, and vicious SMS campaign. Many of my even otherwise sane friends, despite my pleas to use their common sense in assessing the validity of the stories, kept muttering that ‘no smoke without a fire’ nonsense. The latest edition of this mysterious smear campaign concerns emails forwarded to me (I wonder who the originator is, the man who has seen the evidence with his own eyes) that purports to provide documentary evidence that Mr Zardari writes the word ‘God’ as ‘Gaad’ (the typical Punjabi pronouncement of the word), and ‘strength’ as ‘strut’. “God help us!” my correspondent concluded, glibly.

My response was that we indeed needed God’s help when a huge number of us clearly refuse to use our God-given commonsense. For, is it really possible that a man educated in English medium schools, who has spent many years abroad in educated company, and speaks perfectly good English, does not know how to spell the simplest of 3-letter words and spells ‘strength’ as ‘strut’?

The poll results published on the anniversary of the 9/11 were a disheartening reminder of what I am talking about. Apparently, a huge number of people still do not believe the obvious — that Al Qaeda was the perpetrator. Many, like Mr Durrani, our former Chief Minister of the NWFP, think it was a Jewish plot. And the evidence to support this was the canard that all Jews working in the World Trade Centre, mysteriously, did not go to work on that fateful day.

If memory serves me right, a now famous presenter of a political talk show from Islamabad, confessed that he too believed this theory, until he went to Afghanistan later and heard the bitter truth from the horse’s mouth. Is it that difficult to do a little research using Google? Is it credible to believe that the whole world, and the entire international media, was part of a gigantic conspiracy?

Some readers might also have been recipients of another email, purporting to show convincing photographic evidence supporting the reference in scripture to the existence, in ancient times, of a tribe of giants. Apparently, archaeologists in Saudi Arabia have, serendipitously, found these huge human skeletons. And I am expected to believe that such an earth-shattering find has been ignored (or hushed up through a conspiracy) by the world’s leading archaeologists, palaeontologists and historians, not to mention the media?

Then there is that authentic looking email, circulated by Hindu nationalists, I was forwarded by many a correspondent last year. Accompanied by a photo of Lord Macaulay (the man who recommended the use of English as the medium of instruction in India), it purports to quote from his 1835 speech to the UK Parliament. Apparently, His Lordship is supposed to have said that “in all his wide travels in India, he never saw one beggar or a thief; that the people are of such high calibre and have such high moral values that the only way to subjugate them is to destroy their spiritual and cultural heritage”.

Only, the whole thing is a fake. Anyone with a little knowledge of the relevant history, or anyone prepared to do a bit of research, or — dare I say it — anyone who would use his common sense would know that was so. Lord Macaulay entered Parliament only in 1937, never made such a speech, and the policy paper on education in India he wrote for the Viceroy was far from complimentary about Indians.

Such evidence can lead only to one conclusion: it is a regrettable fact of life — as I have said before elsewhere, in another context — that the bitter pill of truth need must first dissolve in the sweet solvent of our beliefs before it can be absorbed into the bloodstream of our reality; otherwise it is thrown up in an involuntary spasm.

That diagnosis is easier than suggesting a cure. That said, we must accept the human condition for what it is, and box on, nevertheless. And, the only defence I know to such skulduggery is large dollops of initial scepticism, the insistence on irrefutable evidence, and the placing of the onus on providing such evidence firmly on the shoulders of those who make claims that challenge our common sense.

The writer is a businessman. A selection of his columns is now available in book form. Visit


Source: Daily Times, 24/9/2008

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