The Fear of the Question Mark
Mouwafak Chourbagui argues that a fear of questioning has lead to a closed society, driven by fear and control. Have we been seduced by subjective narratives instead of surrendering ourselves to the cold beauty of the universe? It sure seems like it.
"For small creatures such as us the vastness is bearable only through love." Carl Sagan
We are born into this life, naked and vulnerable, just another foam in an infinite wave looking for a shore to welcome our arrival and give meaning to our stream, our course. Self-aware of our existence yet ignorant and terrified about the vast mysteries surrounding us, we seek refuge in narratives that give significance to the bittersweet randomness that orchestrates our respective symphonies.
The beautiful mystery could have liberated us from the weight of meaning; could have given us adrenalinic impetus to make the best out of our evanescent heartbeats, yet our anxieties and fears have silenced the impish whispers of endless possibilities and imprisoned us in identities inherited from our surroundings: the religion of our parents, the emotional baggage of our family, the history of our ethnicity, the behavioural roles of our gender and the pride of our nationalities.
We have traded the limitless borders of imagination for a self-centered narrative that puts us at the heart of creation, as the main protagonists of the plot, above nature and beyond reproach. Instead of accepting that the universe is indifferent to our fate – that we are to it no more important than a snail, no less disposable than the 48 species that disappear daily – we waltz in parochial narratives that have jolted us away from the magic of the world and into the safe shores of self-delusional comfort.We are now conditioned to believe that there is a certain “root” we have to return to, a certain camp to which we belong, an unshakable identity that shapes our thoughts and actions.
As we grow older, we gradually normalise our belief system and digest our social role, making it harder for us to take a step back and dissect the arbitrary lines that have written our stories. Blinkered by our own personal and social construct, our capacity to dream and wonder with childlike eyes at the poetic intangibility of the world vanishes and we are left in boxes, defined by subjective tribal realities, driven by ephemeral pursuits and satisfied by the accumulation of meaningless commodities in a rigged game of competitive Darwinism.
Our fear of the question mark is deeply embedded in our society. Egypt could not maintain its suffocating system if questioning was suddenly introduced into its culture. There is no room for doubt in societies based on control. That is why our relational dynamics are locked in authoritarianism: the parent over the child, the teacher over the student, the employer over the employee, the preacher over the follower, the government over the citizen. One is always de facto “right” and it is rarely the one with the best argument but simply the one with the most power.
By choosing the foolishness of certitude over the wisdom of doubt, we have become the architects of an insipid world short of charm and full of sheikhs. We have given away ownership of our precious lives for a distorted form of love called belonging; to be part of a herd oblivious of its stardust and part of a community that can no longer see outside the parameters of its canvas.
And since we cannot question, we cannot change, and we condemn ourselves to recycle the perceptions and beliefs of the previous generations as if sacred and infallible. We end up transmitting obsolete traditions, relaying patriarchal values and passing on irrational beliefs without blinking an eye. We have become the semi-conscious marketers of oppressive ideas, giving CPR to norms that should have dried out when they no longer made sense.
But since our society is based on control, our households, our schools and our temples have not instilled in us a transit area between our thoughts and actions, a vital inner nest in which we analyse and question our impulses and assumptions so that we can transcend the constraints of our biological instincts and filter out the dead skin of our social and individual constructs.
We are manufactured beings, programmed by our experiences, environment and ideologies yet seldom do we question the external factors that have formed us nor do we genuinely interrogate the legitimacy and authenticity of our value system. In that sense, we have not received a true education.
And some people think that is a class issue. That the poor are condemned to ignorance while the rich have joined the thinking club by eating Fauchon and understanding the plot of Inception. But in truth, their transit area and introspective capacities are as inexistent as their rest of society’s. They are simply more qualified for the job market and have been privileged enough to grow up in an environment where there is more access to information, knowledge and, of course, distraction.
I often cringe when I hear those cute bourgeois grandmothers gossiping with rolling Rs, spiteful at the poor for being uneducated when they themselves champion the most superficial and meaningless form of education: surface etiquette. To dress a certain way, to have a clean haircut and a shaved beard, to eat salad with a special fork and to communicate in a politically correct language that takes all the spice away from linguistic permutations. It is as if they are embarrassed that humans are animals at their core, and anything that reminds them of that grim reality is covered up with surface beautification or tongue control to reinforce their self-construed illusion of superiority. Like animals, we have to eat but we can’t be bestial about our hunts so we have to cover it up with meaningless etiquette de table. Like animals, we have to shit, but to save our blushes we have be discreet about our flushes, and if we must bring it up; we shall only do so in infantile language or implicit metaphors. Like animals, we have to fuck but God forbid we be all inhibited about it so we must create bedside protocols, stifling erotic creativity and freestyle genital navigation in the name of a false sense of sexual morality. And of course this discomfort with animal origin probably explains why I hear so many nonchalant racist digs at black people at most chic special fork dinners I attend. They probably think that blacks are pseudo-apes while they are closer to the civilised meringue. Well guess what Georgette, you too are an ape. The sun just likes you less.
Self-importance drags us away from our nature and into a superficial visual universe where we fool ourselves into believing that we are something more than self-aware mammals with mani-pedis and iPads. This is not education but self-glorification. Changing our surface does not change our core.
As evidenced by our current state, the problem with societies that never question is that they are fated to be regressive or stagnant at best. Everything is taken at face value: that Kofta can cure AIDS, that God wants Abu Trika to score a goal, that a strip club is going to open in Zamalek. We believe so easily that we are fated to flirt eternally with ignorance, to condem our society to obscurity. No progress can be expected if the same narratives are given to the same issues regardless of time and context. No freedom can be attained if taboo subjects are sealed in impenetrable doors. And the more we fear the question mark, the deeper we plunge into the shackles of our narratives, depriving us of plurality which has an important role in balancing out the different bullshits of people.
Take the ultimate taboo subject: religion. Recently, MadaMasr published an article explaining that a special police taskforce will be formed to track and arrest a group of atheists in Alexandria that share their beliefs on social media. Why the trouble? These atheists pose no security threat whatsoever yet they are demonised and persecuted simply because they think differently. Are we so vulnerable that their different perceptions threaten the legitimacy of our faith? Is the power of faith so dependent on universal approval? If we are unable to deal with the message, demonizing and silencing the messenger is an effective strategy. Sometimes one demon word can do the trick. “Kafer” is that word charged with venom, a word so powerful that its mere pronunciation suffices to kill any debate and justify any action. A lot of societies have a scare word. In the US, “communist” or “socialist” is used to protect aggressive capitalism and “terrorism” to advance imperialism, Zionists label adversaries as “anti-semites” to keep Israel at bay from criticism and The French flaunt “laïcité” to enforce laws specifically targeting Muslims.
But Muslims too can be oppressive when they are part of the majority; of the power structure. That we tend to view the simple fact of not believing as a general assault on religion worthy of imprisonment puts as all in intellectual handcuffs. Because it closes a much needed space of discussion at in a time of social crisis. By punishing the few with a different perspective, we are ensuring that what is on the table for tackling problems remains the same. We need new solutions and open minds to join in a conversation that has been hijacked by obscure minds. It was naïve to think that the Muslim Brotherhood took us on the brink of an Islamist society; we already were in an Islamist society. The laws of inheritance and marriage are glued to religion, gender relations are stifled and sex remains the elephant in the room that sends the wolves onto the streets. The Muslim Brotherhood were always going to fail politically but socially, they have won the war. The mirage of the American Dream just distracted our eyes and made us believe that we were on advertising boards. But behind the surface of high heels and café lattes, a neglected and crushed population has turned to fatalism to find meaning to the coldness of their universe.
Frustrations have allowed a certain anger to fester. There is a certain darkness normalised into the religious vibe of this generation and we seldom talk about it. Gulf money and unhappy pantaloons have created a dogmatic brainchild that has dragged religion away from the universe’s glory and into the dark alleys of resentment and control. It is no wonder that issues like civil marriage, pre-marital sex, homosexual rights, drugs, abortion, and bacon have remained shunned from mainstream debates. People are afraid to talk about issues real to them so they live in denial, incognito or in the shadows of themselves. Extremism is symptomatic of handcuffed cultures and handcuffed cultures are the product of an absence of questioning.
With religion departing from spirituality to dogma, violence has become more acceptable. Why is it that when an inconsiderate idiot somewhere draws a caricature of the Prophet, thousands of people are ready to avenge God? I doubt that God is that insecure. But we are. Our belief system is so fragile that imprisonment and even death are seen as a legitimate responses to distasteful provocation or/and bigotry. Meanwhile, in Buddha-Bar, dozens of Egyptian midnight marauders are dancing to the odious sounds of David Guetta in front of a huge statue of Buddha. The Dalai Lama has not issued a fatwa and monks are not self-immolating in protest like in their Vietnam heyday.If this were truly about our respect for religion in general, we would have been consistent to our principle and protest in front of Buddha-Bar, but this is about us, about the security of our beliefs and yet we have the audacity to think that the omnipresent Creator needs a mortal man to be his bodyguard. If these self-righteous Muslims respectfully believed in a higher power, they would let God do the judging instead of giving themselves the prophetic powers of judge and executioner. Isn’t that the bigger blasphemy in this story? To have the nerve to interrupt the divine plan as if bestowed with a metaphysical calling?
But if it rains and these issues are miraculously brought up, they are ipso facto discredited as Western concepts. And herein lies the most tragic consequence of the fear of questioning: the triumph of simplistic and idiotic binaries: Mo2men vs Kafer, Sisi vs Morsi, Halal vs Haram, Watani vs Kha2en, East vs West… Instead of developing a mind in the form of a maze, where deliberation dances in different corridors of perceptions before constructing a thought, our minds end of resembling Salvador Dali’s moustache, sliding in and out of two pointy extremes.
It is as if the mind can only register two narratives, in which only one is palpable to it. Without nuance and reflection, the truth becomes a masturbatory afterthought ejaculated from a narrative compatible with our preconceptions. Thoughts are no longer naked, they always have to wear the emotional coat of our fears and beliefs, put on the headphones of society’s opus and adapt to the connotation’s powerful lips give them as they gently kiss the masses to create the desired mental rippling effect. So like us, they have been damaged, depleted until there is nothing left to cling on to save our collective cynicism.
The revolution too suffered the same fate. It used to meaning something. It used to be the torch of a shell generation on the brink of blossoming. Now it is just a slogan, the new “om el donia”, an emotive prostitute with three lovers fighting for its copyrights: the reactionary Islamists and their obscure dogmatic outlook on life, the bloated military men and their proud faux nationalistic narrative and the crony capitalists and their spurious American Dream fantasies.
So what is left for those not willing to cede control of their lives to the armed, the clerics and the corporations? Who feel that they should at least be offered one right: the right to own one’s mortality, to choose how to lead that fleeting glimpse we call life? Perhaps only isolation in the borders of life. A desolate landscape of loneliness. When there is no platform for emancipation, no true acceptance of the other, self-destruction becomes an escape from the unbearable oppression imposed.
But if we overcome our fear of questioning, perhaps there could be a revolution that could still be saved; the revolution of self, the ability to transcend and overcome the shackles of our social construct, the weight of our national inheritance and the short-sightedness of our tribal narratives so that we can truly steer our lives into the direction we desire. As we re-enter life once again, naked as we came, humble passengers of time and space, we would maybe finally realise that we need not create camps for we are all in the same boat, and “for small creatures like us, the vastness is only bearable through love.”