09/08/2011

Said Nursi on Social Unrest

I’ve just been watching the BBC’s nightly current affairs programme Newsnight. The main focus tonight of course, has been the riots engulfing estates on the outskirts of London (and since 6pm - my own city of Birmingham, where someone was sent from London to talk like a besieged war reporter on a foreign mission).
On the discussion segment, debate went back and forth between politicians, community leaders and police spokesmen on the causes, the usual key words and phrases getting repeated like a dull drinking game: ‘Cuts’ = one shot. ‘Disaffection’ = two shots. ‘Return to family values’ = kiss the person next to you. You can see how these things can quickly get out of hand.

How auspicious that today I finished Şükran Vahide's Islam in Modern Turkey: An Intellectual Biography of Bediuzzaman Said Nursi. The enigmatic thinker shedded a light on the dangers of unfettered materialism (or ‘worldliness’) around which modern society is soley concerned, and which precludes dissatisfation (one shot again).


Nursi (1877-1960) saw the early processes of modernisation and capitalisation settling into the vacuum left by an abandonment of faith and virtue. His observations on the benefits and pitfalls of the western social and economic order demonstrate his long-sightedness and genuine concern for humanity.

What first alerted me to the relevance of Nursi’s critique, which I will quote below, was a report by the Guardian today in which they quoted a youth culture expert pointing out that most rioters and looters are low-income youths from council estates with high unemployment and form


"A generation bred on a diet of excessive consumerism and bombarded by advertising… “Where we used to be defined by what we did, now we are defined by what we buy. These big stores are in the business of tempting [the consumer] and then suddenly these people find they can just walk into the shop and have it all”


Whilst the welfare state has plugged the gaps of difference with some success on a superficial level, the unabated promotion of desire and excessiveness in life-style, a product of capitalism and materialism is too powerful and all-encompassing to prevent discontent. Nursi states the two problems facing society were 1) the promotion of ‘appetites of the flesh’, which has embedded impulses for ‘instant gratification’ into society, and 2) ‘the appalling inequality in the means of livelihood’, which means that new needs or rather must have's, can't be obtained.

For your reading pleasure, below is transcribed part of a letter to Prime Minister Adnan Menderez in which Nursi refers to the Qur’anic verses “Eat and drink, but waste not in excess” (7:31) and “Man possesses nought save which he strives” (52:39)

A ‘general tranquillity and a happy worldly life – the true aims of modern civilisation, have been destroyed. And wastefulness and extravagance have taken the place of frugality and contentment…desire for ease has overcome endeavour and sense of service, it has made unfortunate humanity both extremely poor and extremely lazy… Mankind’s happiness in life lies in frugality and endeavour, and it is through them that the rich and poor will be reconciled, I shall here make one or two brief points to explain this:

In the nomadic age, man needed only three or four things, and it was only two out of ten people who could not obtain them. But now, through wastefulness, abuse, stimulating the appetites, and such things as custom and addiction, present-day civilisation has made inessential needs seem essential, and in place of the four things of which he used to be in need, modern civilised man is in need of twenty. And it is only two out of twenty who can satisfy those needs in a totally licit way; eighteen remain in need in some way…

It perpetually encourages the desolate lower class to challenge the upper classes. It has abandoned the Qur’an’s sacred fundamental law instructing for the payment of zakah [a percentage of one’s income to charity] and prohibition of usury and interest, which ensured that the lower classes were obedient toward the upper classes and the upper classes were sympathetic toward the lower classes, and encouraged the bourgeoisie to tyranny and the poor to revolt. It has destroyed the tranquillity of mankind.
-Said Nursi, Emirdağ Lahikası, 1957

Many of the looters' choice targets included mobile phone shops and big clothing brands, which one witness said they performed with the “nonchalance of someone doing their shopping at 4:30pm.” The Guardian's expert noted that the rioters "feel they can rationalise it by targeting big corporations. There is a sense that the companies have lots of money, while they have very little." Adding to the chorus of those noting excessive consumerism, one sociologist bluntly added that “there are simply more desirable, portable consumer goods to steal than ever before”.

Nursi nominally accepted the existence of different classes as long as their duties and burdens were equally shared, with the benefit of society as a whole in mind. Nursi does not hold all the answers to today’s dilemmas, but it is interesting to note his concerns with where the pursuit of modern civilisation based on worldliness and human philosophy would take humanity.

Nursi's points can offer insight from the past to the dangers of a mix of social inbalance and materialism today.

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