Inshallah versus Can-do

Inshallah is a popular expression in the Middle East that is sometimes misunderstood by Westerners. Its literal translation is ‘if God wills’. The reference to God does imply a religious focus that might not necessarily be in the mind of those using the expression. More often than not it reflects uncertainty about future events. This, in my view, separates Eastern from Western thinking and causes frustration as well as inaccurate stereotyping on both sides.

The can-do philosophy presented by Westerners, especially Americans, comes over as a mix of arrogance and recklessness. The Inshallah philosophy of Easterners is taken as a sign of laziness and complacency. I was reminded of the dichotomy by a problem faced by a postgraduate student from the Middle East who complained to me about a problem he has experienced in England. His field of research seeks to use complex systems in the analysis of relations between the USA and the Middle East. Complex systems exhibit a higher degree of unpredictability than that presented by the more familiar linear, mechanistic systems (see Complexity and associated pages on this website). Basically, because of the large number of interacting elements it is difficult to link inputs, or causes, to outcomes, or effects. Without clear causal relationships how do we manage any situation? That is the challenge posed to this student in convincing others of the soundness of his approach. He was most surprised that his colleagues back home would have been easier to convince that academic colleagues in Britain. As one of his supervisors, I had to provide an explanation. In doing so, I felt the problem was broader than just a minor point of academic discussion.

Fundamentally there are two ways of “thinking, speaking, and acquiring knowledge, which scholars have called mythos and logos.” (see Karin Armstrong, The Battle for God, 2000: xiii. She revisited this topic in A Short History of Myth, 2005.) Put simply, mythos relates to the mystery of the unknown while logos is associated with reason and analysis based on provable facts. One is primarily subjective while the other is presumed to be principally objective.

The fortunes of mythos and logos have changed over the ages; the former being generally on the way down while the latter was in ascendancy. A few thousand years ago there was little that was not thought of as mysterious and otherworldly. Agriculture was possibly the earliest form of human endeavour in which logos began to exert an influence. The Renaissance in the 14th to 17th century, the age of Reason in the 17th century, and the Enlightenment in the 18th century witnessed a massive onslaught in Western thinking on Mythos in favour of Logos. Anything that could not be logically and positively perceived and analysed was little more than worthless myth.

The Industrial Revolution with its wondrous inventions generated a feeling of power over nature. The ‘can-do’ mode of thought was inevitable and quite understandable. We have the power to do virtually anything; it is only a matter of ingenuity and abundant resources. Churchill’s famous wartime expression of the inevitability of success brought about by “overwhelming force” describes the concept perfectly. Bush and his neoconservative clique see the world in the same light: if we can send a man to the moon then we can bring about any desired situation to order.

In recent decades, doubts have crept into this cosy view of life. Particle physicists demonstrated that uncertainty is an unavoidable element even in the hard sciences. The social sciences presented more tangible and more easily understood cases where causes and effects are more difficult to trace and where predictability is at a premium. This feature is now considered under the umbrella of complex adaptive systems.

However, centuries of certainty cannot be discarded lightly. People in the East, who escaped the Enlightenment to some degree, find it less burdensome to accept unknowns and uncertainties. They handle these under the Inshallah principle. Westerners, who have embraced the certainties of the Enlightenment, are less equipped to accept the changed viewpoint. How can we manage without cause and effect relationships and universal laws of behaviour? Hence, the academic debate about causality.

But this little academic difficulty, which is in any case disappearing fast, causes endless problems to billions of people throughput the world. The failing development industry that turned the so-called developing countries into laboratories for wasteful experimentation was, and to some extent is, based on the can-do model. And nowadays we have the Bush and Blair doctrine of preemption and intervention founded on a shaky belief that the world could be changed overnight by the application of overwhelming force. Millions of people in East and West have paid a heavy price, often with their lives, for this seemingly unimportant academic nicety.

The battle now is not between civilisations or even religions but between Inshallah, unknowns and slow and uncertain evolution, and can-do, brash and enforced change that turns out to be a mirage when applied to the wrong situations in which elements do not behave obligingly as Newtonian mechanistic phenomena. Nations need more than the application of methods borrowed from the industrial assembly line. Not an easy role change for globe trotting ‘movers and shakers’ to accept.