The Power of Ideas

This final draft was edited (and mangled) slightly in the newspaper version.
The first draft, and relevant critiques are given — this is meant for potential writers of columns studying the process of revising and improving articles.
Please see “Pursuit of Happiness” for more material related to the Gestalt Prayer and its problems.
The Alkire-Ritchie Paper “Winning Ideas” is attached. It studies how Chicago School ideas went from being an unpopular minority position to dominating the economics profession.

The Power of Ideas
Dr. Asad Zaman

Materialistic theories of history suggest that geography and material resources determine the destinies of nations. Karl Marx went further to suggest that even our ideologies are strongly influenced or determined by changes in economic and other material conditions. A delicious irony of history is that, entirely contrary to his theories and expectations, the ideas of Marx went on to change the lives of millions of people in Russia and China for more than half a century. Without any material resources or compelling historical necessities, the vision of a classless society which promised to look after every member “according to their needs,” inspired Russian and Chinese leaders. The reality of communist Russia was so different from the idealized vision that there is a legitimate dispute as to whether it was a force for good or evil. However, there can be no dispute that the ideas of Marx, without any material resources to back them up, changed the course of history.

It is only because materialist views have become widely accepted that something as obvious as the power of ideas to change the world needs to be stated, argued and demonstrated. The terrifying flash of the nuclear explosion in Hiroshima in which “Practically all living things, human and animal, were literally seared to death” is highly visible. Even more powerfully destructive than the ideas of mathematics and physics which led to the creation of the bomb, are the invisible ideas which allow us to calculate the value of human lives in terms of barrels of oil. Far more than an interplay of material resources, this world is a battleground of ideas, good and bad, which shape our lives and history.

Historians have searched the history of the nomadic Arabs in vain for material causes to explain their sudden rise to world power after the coming of Islam. The ideas of Islam, explicitly preaching the equality and brotherhood of all men, which turned the tides of history. In the words of the brilliant historian Marshall Hodgson, “Muslims succeeded in building a new form of society, with its own distinctive institutions, its art and literature, its science and scholarship, its political and social forms, as well as its cult and creed, all bearing an unmistakable Islamic impress. … (Islamic civilization) came closer than any had ever come to uniting all mankind under its ideals.”

Today powerful media are spreading many ideas antithetical to the central Islamic messages. Ads, movies, magazines and the internet encourage us to enjoy life to the fullest, by adopting a luxurious lifestyle. Islam encourages us to adopt a simple lifestyle, as modeled by the Prophet (s.a.w.) who ate one day and went hungry the next. Ads encourage purchase of goods to “be the envy of your neighbors.” Islam teaches us to bury fruit peels so as to not incite the envy of the neighbor’s children, if we cannot afford to share fruits with them. The Quran (59:9) praises those who give to others even though they are themselves needy. This is in stark contrast with promotion of luxury products at a time when millions are hungry and homeless.

The most important battles of today are for minds and hearts, not the ones for power and oil. Our common enemy is the message of supreme self-interest, combined with complete indifference to others, crystallized in the popular “Gestalt Prayer”: “I do my thing and you do yours … if by chance, we find each other, it’s beautiful. If not, it can’t be helped.” Many western analysts have expressed their dismay at the dissolution of the social fabric and breakdown of families caused by individuals “doing their own thing,” without concern for others. The consequences to society in terms of divorce, depression, suicide, crime, alcohol and drugs, random shootings, and myriad others, have been documented in many thick research reports.

We must actively engage in the battle against slick ads and Hollywood movies, which make material goods and pursuit of pleasure appear far more attractive than they really are. We must teach our youth the ancient wisdom that feeding the poor bring more memorable and meaningful pleasure than the finest meal at the most luxurious restaurant. Love, honesty, commitment, trust, sacrifice and service are needed to build families and communities, which are far superior to lonely lives covered by glamour, glitter and luxury. Strong forces are pushing materialism, hedonism, and individualism, but we still have the cultural resources to win the battle if we try.

The Alkire-Ritchie Paper “Winning Ideas