Questions, Terrorism, and Nasruddin’s beard

by Modaser Shah

Consider this Nasruddin scenario: Mullah Nasruddin has become a celebrity, much sought after. This forces him to resort to disguises to evade “fans” and their questions. A beard, if long enough, would serve purpose. One morning the Mullah finds himself in the company of a  youngster who, after scrutinizing the Mullah’s face, asks hesitantly, “Sir, I was wondering whether your beard stays over the blanket or under it when you go to bed at night.”

For the first time in his life, the sage is stumped. He scratches his head in puzzlement, “Son, I honestly don’t know,  I haven’t paid attention, but I appreciate your asking it. It deserves some observation and thought.”

After some time,when the Mullah runs into the youngster again, his beard is gone; the latter  obviously disappointed, has an inquiring, baffled look. The Mullah smiles indulgently, ” My boy, yours was some question; I didn’t know if it was right to leave the beard above the blanket or pull it below the blanket at night. I just couldn’t sleep anymore. My beard had to go.”

In this story the Mullah seems to have been steeped in Taoist thinking: treating a trifling matter with the utmost seriousness whereas previously he had been seen to treat utterly weighty questions with lightness.

The beard became a quandary; he addressed it by eliminating the source . Why bother thinking? Why  have a choice? It is like the wall on the Mexican border; it eliminates the problem. Except that it doesn’t really. However, in the short term, it relieves us of having to think and make choices, ethical, moral, and political. The same goes for  the climate change or the global warming issue. Why not just avoid having to think and to make choices? (Incidentally, those of us who oppose the wall, are also often motivated by the wish to avoid the exertion that thinking & making choices require. It is not just a matter of saying no).

For some problems, the Mullah’s “solution” may seem like a lazy avoidance of thinking and making choices. However, for other situations, the suggestion may work perfectly well, such as in public health. If tobacco and alcohol consumption is thought to cause certain diseases, then trying to eliminate these habits makes sense. By analogy, if D’aesh is deemed to be the cause of terrorist activity, “completely wiping it out” makes sense.

However, we will still have to make choices, because D’aesh (or ISIS), apart from being a problem, is also a symptom of other things. Terrorism, like the Mullah’s beard, is likely to grow back. Questions must continue to be raised. The Mullah’s motto was: make light of the serious, problematize the day-to-day, the familiar.  Stay on the surface to plumb the depths.

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