Moral Equilibrium and Religious Fundamentalism: Why Afghanistan does not need a ministry of virtues and vices, but one of social justice.

Prof. Ariel James ajames@comillas.edu

Few hours ago, we learned that the current government of Afghanistan, controlled by the Taliban, has established a brand new “Ministry for the Propagation of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice” (The Guardian, September 8, 2021). The idea of dedicating a ministry to enforce the Koranic’s version of “moral law” had already been established by non-Taliban governments in the early 1990s. As such, it is the brainchild of theology professors such as Burhānuddīn Rabbānī, with a sympathetic reception from mujahideen fighters such as members of the Hekmatyar clan and Bin Laden himself. Therefore, nothing to be surprised: Tyrians and Trojans share the measure.

I do not want to make a “moralistic” reading of a decision that is frankly moralistic. I would just like to point out some ideas that I mentioned before in a presentation. First, it is clear who is the actor who oversees the operation (Saudi Arabia). The scheme of thought that has kept the Al Saud family at the helm of Arabia for the last hundred years is quite basic: there is no separation between the ruling family, morals, religion, and the state. Well, to be rigorous, this mental framework goes back to the prophet himself, although in his case the “state” was the community of the faithful. Of course, it is a fiction. There is nothing to prevent a correlation between state and morality, as Hegel argued. But the problem is not there. The problem is when some state X becomes the sole guarantor of some conception of morality, say Y.

The Taliban could not be below Carrier and Fouquier-Tinville, in recognizing that the mission of the state is to persecute all those who try “dépraver les mœurs et à corrompre la conscience publique”. Not even the pro-Western Karzai government was far from such fantasies. Let us not forget that revolutionary governments are especially fond of such purifying measures – Khomeini’s example immediately springs to mind. If there is no enemy, it is necessary to invent it. But, in this case, there are many enemies (e.g., US, Europe, cartoons, etc.). The moral fiction does not stop growing, to the extent that the same model of evil can be embodied by almost any foreign and materialistic instance.

Here I would like to introduce a small philosophical note. Since the late 90s the Western press has been talking about the so-called “Islamic fundamentalism”. The underlying idea is that certain versions of Islam are fundamentalist, that is, extreme views about human nature and society. It would be worth asking what we mean by religious extremism. How is something classified as “extreme”, as opposed to something else that is conceived as “not extreme”, that is, some sort of middle ground?

At first glance, it occurs to me that there are two ways to approach the matter. The first would be the Platonic solution, according to which most human attitudes would be in a middle point between good and evil, while extremes such as “very bad” or “very good” would be rather exceptions to the rule, in Plato’s own words, few and rare cases (Phaedo, 89d-e). Therefore, if we seriously study human nature, as Socrates suggests in that dialogue, we will discover that most people are more-or-less bad, and more-or-less good, at the same time, while the very-good or very-bad people may be just eccentricities. In terms of statistical regularities, the midpoint would win the game, and the extremes would be the black swans. Some liberal minds love this vision because it makes us assume that religious and ideological forms of radicalism/extremism are rather exceptional cases.

However, we can turn the argument around, which is exactly what Aristotle does in his three ethics. According to Aristotle, extreme behavioral and emotional positions happen most of the time, while the moral midpoint is the exception. Simply put, most people, most of the time, are far from the ideal fair middle point. Some thinkers do not like that conclusion, because it is unconsciously associated with the concept of mental disequilibrium, and psychiatry has a very low opinion of unbalanced individuals. The fact is that if Plato is right, we have an intrinsic tendency to flee from extremes, whereas, if Aristotle is right, we instead have an intrinsic tendency to escape from the middle point and take refuge in extremes. The debate is still open two millennia later.

Now I would like to ask Hibatullah Akhundzada, chief of the Sharia courts of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, what he thinks of a philosophical but also practical dilemma such as this one. Is the ministry of preventing vice and promoting virtue an attempt to lead people toward some middle ground or temperate character, or rather to incline them toward extreme moral positions, such as behavioral-religious fundamentalism, sadly associated with some contemporary interpretations of Islam? Is there any notion of moral balance, far from any extremism, for the Taliban? If the minute details of people’s lives are controlled by religious-moral law, what would be outside the control of the state?

I surmise, although I may be wrong, that it may be useful to return to the notion of moral equilibrium. It is not about being pure. Rather, it is about being human with all the imperfections that this implies, and being human implies not being pure. There must be some moral balance between errors and certitudes, or between weaknesses and virtues, and that cannot be determined by the government. Moral equilibrium implies that my decisions may find a middle ground between different extremes. If only one extreme is imposed on my conduct, how am I supposed to recognize the difference between good and evil for myself?

One of the most relevant signs of our times is that global politics is being built based on complex trade-off systems. For example, the trade-off between free trade and protectionism, or between the defense of public health and the need to activate production and consumption in the Covid’s era. The new Taliban government faces all these kinds of conflictive trade-offs, but especially it confronts an ethical trade-off between biopolitical control (preventing vice), and social justice (promoting equality).

In this case, between the delirium of trying to impose its conception of moral truth to every citizen or the necessity of tackling economic and social inequality in Afghanistan. It doesn’t matter whether the Taliban, the Durrānī, the Tajiks, or the Massoud family are in charge. What really matters is whether anyone dares to fight for social justice in Afghanistan, and that includes betting for public education (not just madrasas), public health, protection of the weak and orphans (as the prophet demands), of women, children, and dissidents. Or is it that they are not also God’s creation?

 

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