Mountains of Prohibition

In January, I wrote about the Pakistani Taliban:

All that is worst in the human spirit, all that is savage and low and cruel, finds its expression in the Taliban. They are amoral and nihilistic fanatics who never create, only destroy – whether it be the Buddhas of Bamiyan, the girls’ schools in Swat, or the very lives of those who oppose them. To them, everything good in life is a sin, and existence is a narrow, cramped, twisted path between vast mountains of prohibition.

What I find striking is that this stark prohibitionist impulse turns up so often in desperately poor, uneducated and superstitious societies – places where people’s most urgent needs should be food and clean water, education, medicine, investment in infrastructure. Where the need is obvious, it would seem the response should also be obvious. Yet in so many of these societies, the governments turn their scarce resources to further restricting and limiting the lives of their citizens that are already so restricted by poverty and ignorance.

Take one of the most noteworthy examples, the Gaza Strip. Gaza is still suffering under an Israeli blockade; its infrastructure and health care system are in ruins from repeated wars, and 80% of the population lives below the poverty line, and dietary ailments like malnutrition and anemia are rampant. One would think that Hamas, which is in control of Gaza, would be bending all its efforts toward easing its people’s suffering and securing their access to the necessities of life. Instead, we see this:

The Islamic Hamas movement banned girls last month from riding behind men on motor scooters and forbade women from dancing at the opening of a folk museum. Girls in some public schools must wear headscarves and cloaks.

…The government’s Islamic Endowment Ministry has deployed Virtue Committee members to preach at public places to warn of the dangers of immodest dress, card playing and dating.

…The opening of the Palestinian Heritage Museum on Oct.7 was meant to include a rendition of the dabke, a line dance performed by girls and boys. Except that no girls were allowed.

Black-shirted men from Hamas carrying AK-47s appeared at the gates of the museum, on Gaza’s waterfront, said Jamal Salem, the curator. They said girls shouldn’t dance because it wasn’t religiously proper.

Saudi Arabia is not as destitute as Gaza, but has an extremely high unemployment rate and a single-product economy that’s bound to lead to economic disaster as their oil fields run dry and the world economy decarbonizes. But here, too, religious fanatics are steadfastly opposing any progress, even the very modest steps taken by the king, such as attempts to create mixed-gender universities where women are allowed to go unveiled and to drive on campus:

A backlash by clerics, led in public by Sheikh Saad Bin Naser al-Shatri, is slowing those efforts, though the king dismissed al-Shatri from the country’s top religious body last month.

…Just days after the Saudi monarch presided over a Sept. 23 inauguration ceremony for KAUST in which he called it a “beacon of tolerance,” al-Shatri said in a television interview that mixed-gender classes were “evil.”

Saudi clerics have also opposed the country’s nascent film industry – yes, Saudi Arabia has a film industry; a fairly astonishing fact, considering that movie theaters are still illegal there – and their influence has caused several local film festivals to shut down:

Waleed Osman, a 21-year-old Saudi film director, almost got arrested when he shot his award-winning movie “The Revenge” on the seafront corniche in the Red Sea port of Jeddah.

…Senior religious figures have condemned cinema as un-Islamic. Saudi Arabia’s Grand Mufti, Sheikh Abdul Aziz al-Sheikh, in March told students at King Saud University in Riyadh that musical and film performances were against Sharia, or Islamic law.

I find it hard to comprehend the mindset that sees the world as bristling with snares and traps, that sees every interaction in daily life as a sin to be shunned or a temptation to be avoided. If these medievalist clerics wanted only to close themselves off from the universe and spend their lives in a dark and narrow box of dogma, I’d say more power to them. But instead, they’ve turned their fear outward, into a positive loathing of everything that doesn’t conform to their ideas, and are trying to banish all unorthodoxy from the world. In the process, they’re crippling their own societies, keeping millions of people trapped in benighted and stagnant pools. In Gaza and in Saudi Arabia, as in many other places, we can see the sparks of human creativity struggling to escape. If there’s anything that gives me hope, it’s that so many other tyrannical societies that sought to repress their people ultimately collapsed to make way for something better.

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About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, City of Light, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • keddaw

    The Taliban is anything but amoral. They are one of the most moralistic societies on earth. It just so happens that people here (and some there) think that their morality is despicable, but one cannot argue that they don’t live by it.

    I have a very strong moral sense and mostly do not follow it as it is difficult and costly to do so, for example I have reasoned that eating farmed meat is wrong but I still do it. Hypoctical, sure, but generally a nice guy. Unless you taste good.

  • Pedro Timóteo

    To put it simply, they hate life. They’re a death cult.

    Christianity would be the same, if Christians didn’t ignore most of their bible, like they do.

  • Jennifer

    Richard Dawkins said much the same about Al Queda; something like that 9/11 could hardly be called a cowardly attack, since the hijackers literally had the courage of their convictions.

    “Mountains of Prohibition” is a compelling metaphor, Adam. Good thinking. You could almost call the other extreme the “Plains of Tolerance,” given the idea of a ‘level playing field.’

    The problem is that if you truly believe in this stuff, it makes sense to blinker not just yourself, but your whole society — especially if you believe you can be punished for another’s sins. Perhaps we should try to advance the notion of individual responsibility in these places. I doubt it would be easy, but I wonder if business owners and others more used to working for themselves are more tolerant than other walks of life where ‘groupthink’ might be more common.

  • keddaw

    I was quite pleased with this quote about The Bible when I posted it on another site: My view is that any book that includes gardening, cooking and drapery is highly unlikely to be the ultimate moral guide 2,000 years later.

  • D

    The Shaitan is everywhere! Really, these people see adversity and temptation everywhere they look. The world is a dangerous place to your soul, and indulging in anything that makes you happy or excited will get you tortured forever. Once you accept that disgusting, backwards premise, you can justify any amount of barbarism because eternal souls are more important than Earthly lives.

    Your “mountains of prohibition” metaphor reminds me of The Enigma of Amigara Fault. As the story goes, a mountain shears open, revealing all these person-sized holes in the rock. Some of them exactly fit this or that person, and these people were drawn to “their holes.” They thought that since it fit them, they must belong there.


    However, the holes were actually primitive torture devices – and once you went in you couldn’t go back, only forward. As the path through the rock winds on, the shape becomes twisted and tangled, and you emerged from the other side as a malformed monstrosity. I never made the connection to religion until today, but now I can’t un-see it.

  • cello

    I think the connection to impoverished society and repressive morality has much to do with power. Without much “stuff” to latch on to, one of the few avenues for people to find power and influence is through religion and it’s moral codes. The clerics in KSA – on some level – probably care more about their influence than they really do about cinemas. They don’t want to lose their power.

    In my reading on FGM, the female practioners report the same. The women who perform these procedures, or advocate for them, have a certain amount of influence that stems from tradition. So they are a lot more loathe to give up FGM than you would think because there is a certain amount of ego wrapped up in it.

  • D

    Yeah, it turns out that people like to run free rather than be kept in line. Fun tends to give people the idea that they can run free and don’t have to stay in line all the time, especially when that fun comes in the form of interesting new ideas (such as cinema). This is why old power seeks to suppress new knowledge, because knowledge is power and giving knowledge to everyone empowers everyone, and that’s downright dangerous to whoever’s in charge because it forces them to act like a servant to the public rather than the ruler over that public, which is not what people like to do with power.

  • Yahzi

    “I find it hard to comprehend the mindset that sees the world as bristling with snares and traps,”

    Of course you can’t. You’re rich, you’ve been rich your whole life, and you’ve grown up in a rich society. Only the strong can be merciful; only the rich can afford to take risks.

    This also explains why our prison system creates so much recidivism: punishing a scared, poor, and desperate person never actually makes them less scared, poor, or desperate. For punishment to work, people have to have something to lose. The people living under the Taliban/Hamas have nothing to lose, so doubling down on the long shot of religious victory just doesn’t seem to cost them that much.

    Step one in any peace process is to make people rich. Step two is to threaten to take it away unless they behave. You can’t do these steps out of order.

  • Tommykey

    Actually, I have no trouble comprehending such a mindset. When you believe that the most important thing is to obey the laws of the god you worship, material comforts take a distant second. So, who cares if you don’t have clean drinking water, as long as you abide by god’s commandments? If clean drinking water, the cinema, or whatever, distracts you from obeying god, then a godly society can do without them.

  • Polly

    I think Jennifer makes a good point about the groupthink. Actually, I think group-liability is more like it. American preachers, especially televangelists, engage in this kind of fear mongering.
    But, because they are not THE GOVERNMENT in this country, their dire warnings of imminent condemnation because of “teh gayz” are just bluster. Had they the power to enact the will of their god, they wouldn’t hesitate to subject all of society – for its own good – to their theological whims, lest more Katrinas, 9-11′s, etc befall this “basckliding, Christian nation.”

    The women who perform these procedures, or advocate for them, have a certain amount of influence that stems from tradition.

    On the whole, older women are terrible allies for liberating women in traditional societies. I think the thinking goes, “I had to go through it, why makes you think YOU’RE so special, you spoiled brat? You think you’re too good for your people? You wanna be Brittney Spears?”

  • Erigami

    Remember that there’s a context. Afghanistan’s Taliban is a response to the warlords that owned the country after the Soviets were driven out. Hamas is a response to the “failed” PLO attempt at running Palestine as a mini-state.

    As keddaw points out in #1, and Jennifer points out in #3, these theocracies are run by highly moral whackjobs. In Afghanistan, the Taliban was accepted because the fighters stuck to their morals. Sure, they were whackjobs, but they wouldn’t rob/rape/murder at will. They brought law, order, and stability relative to the conditions imposed by the warlords.

    I don’t know enough about Hamas to say what they were responding to, but it was probably the pressure put on the population by the Israeli occupation.

    Similar things are happening in Somalia now.

    It’s a pity that they West didn’t choose to intervene in either of these situations until it was too late. (Although the argument can be made that the Afghan warlords are a result of US meddling, but that’s another topic)

  • paradoctor

    Of course the clerics know that their societies are in trouble. And of course they know that providing sanitation, health care, etc would do a great deal of good for the people. But they, the clerics, also know that they, the clerics, cannot provide any of those things. They haven’t the resources or the skills. They cannot do any actual good, but they must do something; so they do what they can, even though it is no good, because at least it’s something. And since their plans fail, they must redouble their efforts.

  • Greta Christina

    This is one of the best counters I’ve seen against the “we need religion because it offers comfort to poor people” argument. Yes, religion does seem to flourish in parts of the world that are impoverished — but that doesn’t mean it provides comfort or aid. And often, it does quite the opposite.

  • nfpendleton

    Why is it this way? Because creating a functioning society is grueling and expensive. Convincing people they aren’t worthy to be alive is easy and cheap.

  • NoAstronomer


    Excellent. Beyond excellent in fact.

  • sterculius

    I don’t call it “moral” because the taliban, who are exclusively male, use their religion to subjugate their women who have no say in the matter.

  • Thumpalumpacus

    By their own lights, they are indeed acting morally.

  • CybrgnX

    The situation there allows any one with brains to realize how LUCKY we are to have a new country to exploit and a Jefferson to get it on a good road of secular government. And you can also see our destination if the xtian right keeps winning.
    If anyone was willing to pump money in to the islamic sink hole they would accomplish exactly ZERO. They need the money but they also need the courageous leaders to bring them out of the hate.
    This whole thing reminds me of my studies of the dark ages when the xtians had totalitarian control, it ended when certain political leads said ENOUGH and kicked back. Until islam develops the same leadership to KICK back nothing will change. If they do not then the ’4th box’ will be used and it will be bloody.

  • Sharmin

    Thanks for writing this. Such horrible treatment of people is absolutely horrendous in any circumstance, of course, but what makes this even more frustrating is that religous leaders stay in power by convincing people that they should be in power — that God wants religious rules to run the society, even if those rules are hurting people. Add to that all the other political, economic, etc. situations and there’s a truly difficult problem to fix.

    If there’s anything that gives me hope, it’s that so many other tyrannical societies that sought to repress their people ultimately collapsed to make way for something better.

    Keep up hope. Even in places where people are being treated horribly, there are people who are willing to stand up for equal rights and justice.

    By the way, I’ve been visiting Daylight Atheism and Ebom Musings for a little while now, and I really enjoy what you write. It always makes me think.

  • Albigensian


    Who’s “we”, kemosabe?

  • Frozen Summers

    Of course we in the west are no immune to such views, but then I’m in Australia and we’re about to get our internet filtered for our protection.