Khaled Batarfi, a childhood friend of Osama bin Laden, reminisced the time when they used to play soccer together in a wasteland near a desalination plant, just outside of the northern limits of the city of Jeddah. Osama’s strength was his towering height — he was thin and 6’4″ (190 cm), like a Saudi version of Peter Crouch. After the soccer matches, they drank fruit juice and fizzy drinks while Osama quizzed other players trivias about Islam history. One day, the so-dubbed “Salafi soccer” boys were recruited by a Syrian PE teacher for an afterschool football training. The teacher was a mesmerizing storyteller who would tell fascinating stories in the dark, only lit by candle, about a boy who killed his own father with a gun because his father was a non-believer who confiscates his praying mat. The teacher said, “Wallahi! With that shot, Islam was finally liberated in that home!”
While the story was too dark for Khaled, who decided to leave to group soon after due to this, Osama was starry eyed and fascinated by the perverted heroism of the story. Stories are the seeds of a very profound sense of duty.
The account above was excerpted from Robert Lacey’s Inside the Kingdom: Kings, Clerics, Modernists, Terrorists, and the Struggle of Saudi Arabia. In Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion, a story that will always be etched in my mind about an atheist’s testimony: “Even though with all cells of rationality I have in my mind I know for sure that the imposition of heaven and hell is erroneous, I still cannot liberate myself from that looming fear deep down in my subconscious, that possibly my choice is wrong, and I will burn forevermore because of that.”
As a kid, my parents instilled into my young brain the same kind of stories the Syrian PE teacher instilled in Osama: the kind of scary stories about going to hell if we as much as say “ah, come on” to parents; how giant-bodied, balaclava-donning, mace-wielding angels of death will beat you in grave when you skip prayers; how at the end of time, we will all be arisen from the grave to see the video of our entire life, shot by dedicated angels who follow us 24/7, playing in a wide-ass screen at the Mahsyar field when all human beings gather in Judgment Day, seen by all mankind, showing the embarrassing sinful moments we have conducted; how after all our sins are revealed to absolutely every soul that has ever walked the Earth, we will have to walk the scary bridge into heaven, with the bridge’s width being only a seventh of the diameter of a strand of hair… if we fall, we go straight into the raging flames of hell, hotter than any nuclear reactions will even imagine of being, while only those without sins will be able to make it across. These kind of worst nightmares that makes any goriest work of Alfred Hitchcock or Stephen King sounds soothing and pacifying. Stories are indeed the seeds of a very profound dominion of fear.
The reason being? Stories construct a visual imagination, which is best explained in three aspects.
Anyone who reads a novel will be disappointed when the novel is made into a movie, because a graphic and straightforward visualization made in the movie will never compare to the vivid and dynamic images in readers’ heads. In arts, we call this “negative space”: let words construct the basic foundations of a visual description, let people’s imagination fill in the rest. Stories, full of personification and description and metaphoric imageries, will always be richer and full of gold-colored elements compared to cold, clear-cut abstraction of ideas. The richness of stories is also impressive, which, coupled by the nature of a particularly vulnerable actor, i.e. children, being impressionable, can create manifest into a life sentence of successful brainwashing.
Personification in stories make it easier for listeners to relate and put themselves in the position of the character. In a successfully powerful and imposing personification, the emotion felt by the character need not to be explained in depth. Instead, simply reliant on emotions readers are familiar with when they encountered, or envision encountering, similar circumstances as the character.
Being easily relatable and emotion-evoking creates a longer, more visceral imprint in most people. Kevin Dutton in his book the Wisdom of Psychopaths explained that psychopaths are able to sharply close their minds into a very narrow vision, weed out all sort of clouding emotions and just focus on rationally calculating a task at hand without fear or nervousness or anxiety. They employ what’s called “cold empathy”, the ability to fully comprehend the emotions other people undergo, but without feeling those emotions themselves, which makes them perfect persuaders, SWAT team member, politician, lawyer, surgeon, and other high-risk tasks. Sadly, most people are not psychopaths. Therefore, upon hearing profoundly moving stories, emotions take hold and the imprint etches deep into one’s viscera.
Visual language is much simpler than words: they affect the brain at a much deeper level; they go straight into one’s subconscious. Such is why children, with a less-developed brain, react much more easily to visual languages than otherwise. Therefore, storytelling have always been proven in history to be an effective method of proselytizing any sort of ideologies. As beautifully mentioned by Elif Shafak in her book The Forty Rules of Love, sufism believes that those who cannot speak in parables is far from God, because God is the best storyteller. Indeed, prophets and poets share the same traits: they are the best storyteller around.
Such is why the modes of abstract thinking that employ complex relativism (as opposed to clear-cut, easily-comprehended absolutism) such as poststructuralism or liberal cool will often lose out. They are not told in stories but in frigid, alienating rationality. The bigger question is, will deeply impactful stories in favor of counter-structuralism or divergent-thinking ever be able to be conceived? The answer is, probably not. Aesthetics, as described by Kierkegaard in Fear and Trembling, favors polarized dramas. Unfortunately, dramatic feature of aesthetics requires unidimensionality, precisely the opposite of counter-structuralism.
Having that said, attempting to write those stories is an extremely important rigor. The biggest task is realizing that storytelling is an absolutely necessary ingredient that contributes to mass influence. Without engaging in storytelling, religious conservatism, exceptionally effective in creating simple stories to further their cause of perpetuating black/white dualism, will always have the upper hand.
Finally, it is Schopenhauer’s words that made me think about all this: “…the capacity of faith is strongest in childhood,” (of course, when imagination is the biggest function of one’s brain before marred by skeptical realism) “which is why religions apply themselves before all else to getting these tender years into their possession. In this way, even more than by threats and stories of miracles, that the doctrines of faith strike roots: for if, in earliest childhood, a man has certain principles repeatedly recited to him with abnormal solemnity and with an air of supreme earnestness such as he has never beheld, and at the same time the possibility of doubt is never so much as touched on, or if it is only to describe it as the first step towards eternal perdition, then the impression produced will be so profound that in almost every case the man will be almost as incapable of doubting this doctrine as of doubting his own existence.”
In a gospel song, Yolanda Adams asked “What about the children? To ignore is so easy… So many innocent children, will choose the wrong way.” What an irony: this yearning of salvation over children manifests into the conception of the most effective way to choke-hold young children’s brains and thoughts, creating the opposite of freedom and instead eternal prison of thoughts without any possibility of parole; where reversal is extremely difficult.
A successful fusion between one’s existence and extreme conservatism is downright scary. In the span of one’s life journey, when the ideological battle is won early on and the dominion is established very early, it is their battle to lose. That is what happened to Osama, and to many impressionable boys killing and discriminating and hating others with obtuse lack of care and instead with ecstasy and glee.