Monday, 17 August 2015

Paulo Coelho and the Power of Words

Apologists for Islam normally recycle the same basic talking points over and over, never allowing the intrusion of facts, reason or logic to interfere with what just sounds right to them.

One of these common talking points was recently deployed by the Brazilian writer Paulo Coelho, author of the acclaimed novel The Alchemist.

Coelho posted an image of the Qur'an on his Facebook page with the caption ‘Exhibition “Books that changed the world,” which received major attention on the social network, gaining over 36,000 likes and more than 3000 shares.

However, one Facebook user, under the name Hiba B Dakkak, commented: “Really!!! This book is the source of violence and murder.”

Coelho replied, saying: “Not true. I am Christian, and for centuries we tried to imposed [sic] our religion by the force of the sword - check ‘cruzades’ [sic] in the dictionary. We murdered women - calling them witches, and we tried to stop science - like in the case of Galileu Galilei [sic]. So, it is not to blame a religion, but how people manipulate it.”

His reply to the comment received more than 5,000 likes on Facebook.

This idea, that "all religions have their extremists", and that it's not the texts' fault, only that of the people who "manipulate" them, is an extremely common one in the public discourse, but it's pure logical fallacy. Coelho says that he is a Christian, and that witch hunts and the "cruzades" were not Christian, just people "manipulating" Christianity. That's not a claim I intend to assess here (if you're interested, you can go here and here). But the important point is that from this, Coelho concludes that therefore, any violent acts committed in the name of Islam must also be un-Islamic, and not sanctioned by its holy texts.

This is not logical. Islam and Christianity are different religions, and the Bible and the Qur'an are different books. There is no rational reason to believe that if one holy book has been misused to justify violence, then the other must be as well. What if one book sanctions violence and the other does not? Is that not within the realm of possibility?

Coelho's post also reflects the common assumption that no one can really be incited to violence by the words in an old book. To the person making such an assumption, the idea is self-evidently absurd. They do not seem to contemplate the idea that not everyone thinks like them, and that to some, the idea is not absurd at all.

Why should people not be incited by words? If you have ever done something that you were instructed to in writing, you have been incited. Have you ever cooked a meal from a cookbook? The book incited you to do that. Have you ever built a piece of furniture based on God-awful Swedish instructions? That's incitement.

People are incited to do "nice" things by words all the time. Why can't they also be incited to do bad things? The only variable in these situations is the choice of the individual to be incited, and to take action, or not. But even if they choose not to be, those words still contain a certain power, and could incite someone else. They are far from meaningless, whether they have a willing reader or not.

Coming from an acclaimed novelist, this denial of the power of words is truly distressing.

Incitement by words is real. If it were not, Mein Kampf would not be banned in many parts of the world (not the Islamic world, but that's another story), and there would be no laws anywhere against it, since anyone charged under such a law could just say, "I didn't incite him to kill that person, Your Honour; he merely manipulated my words to justify behaviour that had nothing to do with me otherwise." If they were of a like mind with Paolo Coelho, they might also add: "And besides, what about that Adolf Hitler fellow? He incited some people once, too."

We live in an age where people no longer seem to feel that facts matter, or that they need to have any to hand when they form an opinion on something. Instead, it is deemed sufficient to just make statements that sound correct, and which you know other people will accept without question. Truth does not seem to matter so much anymore; rather all that matters is sounding good, even if you are wrong.

I would argue that this is both important and deeply disheartening, not just on the philosophical level of the devaluation of objective truth, but also because - as I have written before - such irrationality ultimately costs lives.

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