Islamism as a memeplex
Until the Islamic memeplex is subject to the same fundamental degradation as its Christian equivalent, Islam will continue to hold whole societies hostage
We live in a world in which an increasing number of people are becoming atheist, agnostic, and sceptical of the claims of religion in general. Even before the advent of the so-called 'new atheism', led by the likes of Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and the late Christopher Hitchens, religion had lost its power in most developed countries.
Therefore, it is relatively easy for us to now look back at the Abrahamic faiths, which dominated Europe, Africa, and the Middle East, and point to the flaws that characterised them. But how can we explain their phenomenal growth and proliferation over the last 3000 years?
Dawkins coined the term ‘meme’ from the Greek word mimema meaning 'something imitated'. This term can be used to describe the way in which cultural traits and patterns evolve, spread, and become normalised. In the animal kingdom, only the traits most suited to flourish survive.
A meme is anything that can be copied from one mind to another. A catchy tune is a meme. The recipe for your mum’s casserole, as it passed through the generations, is a meme. Even the ‘word’ meme is a meme, which has just made a copy of itself in your mind. A combination of memes is known as a memeplex, a self-ratifying complex more stable than single memes on their own.
Do memes make people happier? Or more successful in life? No. Just because a memeplex is successful, it doesn't necessarily mean it serves our best interests.
Dawkins likened memes to genes. A black widow spider eats her mate after sex. Kamikaze bees inject a suicidal sting into predators of the communal hive.
A successful gene doesn't necessarily benefit the organism or its hosts. The genes making up a deadly virus may kill millions of people and cause untold misery, but when it comes to the numbers game, the virus is still an undoubted success.
A memeplex can also use human lives in the service of its propagation, cold and indifferent to our existential plight. Religions are also a collection of beliefs passed from one person to another and come under the same umbrella as a memeplex.
Earlier religious memeplexes had a 'live and let live' attitude, and never encouraged their followers to convert others. They were also pluralistic, believed in multiple deities, and accepted that there were many different paths leading to the divine. But then a rival came along that was absolutist, could only accept one God, and was prepared to condemn those that disagreed with it.
This rival also provided its followers with an added incentive; spreading the memeplex would earn them bonus spiritual merit. Since they were saving souls and spreading God's word they could, after a lifetime of sin, look forward to eternal paradise providing they bought others to the faith.
So after a thousand years, which of these two religious variants is more likely to have copied itself in the minds of people?
If we were going to deliberately design a combination of beliefs with the purpose of making ones that could dominate, then we would be hard-pressed to do better than the evangelical Abrahamic faiths. The proof is in the figures. In just 2000 years, Christianity and Islam have amassed 3.5 billion followers (over 50 percent of the world’s population). That is faster than any other memeplexes in history.
Yet it’s not just about growth. A powerful memeplex must also suppress thought-competition from other competing memeplexes. During the 'Dark Ages', Christian leaders successfully suppressed modernity and science in order to preserve the status quo. Reformation of the Church, and the Enlightenment which followed as a result, catalysed a period of rapid change and advancement in Western Europe and North America, and church attendance has dropped dramatically ever since.
Islam, on the other-hand, is still going through its 'dark ages'. Thought-competition is being brutally suppressed in many Muslim-majority countries as Saudi-funded brands of ultra-austere Islam proliferate. The Saudi state continues to spend a large portion of its petrodollars building mosques around the world yet, ironically, according to Sharia law, non-Muslim religious structures are not allowed to be built inside its own lands. It takes years of red tape for existing churches in other Arab Nations such as Egypt to be even allowed to be repaired and this puts the houses of worship of any competing memeplex in a state of permanent decline.
A successful memeplex, when at its peak, also has the ability to create fundamentalists, who can take literalism to a whole new level. The desire for utopia, along with the promise of eternal heaven, can somehow, paradoxically, justify the ultimate Jihadist fantasy of attaining world peace through suicide bombings.
However, moderate Muslims all over the world have resisted the autocratic and restrictive version of this memeplex, which in turn goes a long way to explain the increasingly desperate actions of the fundamentalists.
"Muslims are the first victims of Islam," wrote E. Renan. "Many times I have observed in my travels in the Orient that fanaticism comes from a small number of dangerous men who maintain the others in the practice of religion by terror.”
The Islamic memeplex has yet to undergo fundamental reform and degradation in the same way the Christian memeplex did. Until it does, it will continue to hold whole societies hostage and prevent whole peoples from fulfilling their potential as human beings.
Saif Rahman is a Strategic Consultant, CMHA founder (Cultural Muslim & Humanist Association) & Author of The Islamist Delusion
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