How to fight a brainwash

first_imgWhoever had heard of National Thowheed Jamaath (NTJ) till the deadly Easter blasts that killed close to 300 people? Of these, nine were the suicide bombers, who blew themselves up along with their victims. One of these, a woman, was also reportedly pregnant.In a video circulating on the Internet, a member of the group, sporting an automatic weapon in one hand and a child in the other, was threatening to kill kafirs (non-believers) in chaste Tamil.Religious radicalismThere was something quite incongruous, and frightening, about these appeals. Especially the utter contradiction between the declamatory power of a classical language and the message of murderous hatred and prejudice that were being conveyed.What is even more alarming is that many such videos circulate quite freely on the Internet. How many of the speakers and preachers actually turn terrorists is hard to gauge, but their very frequency and profusion shows how easily susceptible minds are exposed to propaganda.Though not all of it preaches violence against others, religious propaganda is found 24/7 on TV channels and internet portals across the world. Just the other day, I came across a bearded, upper-lip shaven, probably Pakistani, individual openly listening to a hate-sermon without headphones in an airport business lounge in an East Asian country. There were no others, he must have thought, who could understand that language in that part of the world. The sermon, which happened to be in Urdu, promised that Allah would punish non-believers and sinners, all those who refused to heed to his last Prophet’s call to faith.advertisementWhat can we do about the real threat that is posed to world civilisation by such religious radicalism? The answer, perhaps, is contained in one word: intelligence.Intelligence, both, prophylactic and strategic: to keep gathering vital information through a variety of means and sharing it in a regular and systematic manner with our allies. In the Sri Lankan tragedy, we know how such intelligence was ignored and what the consequences were. Closer home, what are we doing to ensure such an outrage is not perpetrated on our soil? Intelligence is a much more effective counter-terrorism strategy than post-facto reaction. Is the extent of our investment in or reliance on intelligence sufficient at present? Shouldn’t we bolster intelligence-gathering capabilities and upgrade our knowledge base so that we can distinguish significant leads from false ones?Intel is keySuspicious organisations and individuals should be constantly and consistently monitored for actionable information.Religious and radical groups under the scanner should be shut down if there is evidence of their turning rogue. True, such citizen shadowing goes contrary to some of our freedoms. However, at stake is the safety and security of hundreds of ordinary citizens. That is why careful and discreet investigation of purveyors of hate is necessary. Religious freedoms should be tempered with the demands of state security. But the state should be even-handed and fair, and be perceived thus.The Islamic State has claimed responsibility for Sri Lanka. How credible is this claim needs to be ascertained, but without an international network and logistical support such a large-scale operation would be highly unlikely if not virtually impossible. But there is another sense of intelligence that is perhaps not all that studied or considered. What is more, it is more appropriately the concern of humanists and generalists as much as of philosophers, psychologists and neurobiologists.At its heart is the question: What is it that makes human beings programmable into human bombs? What are the processes of brainwashing involved? What, moreover, makes certain individuals more susceptible than others to the appeal of such indoctrination?Encoding peaceThose working in artificial intelligence realised that the human brain is as programmable as a computer. But we are also remarkably free and capable of resisting the daily and relentless conditioning that we are subjected to every minute. This includes all sorts of legal conditioning, including advertising, which influences our behaviour.Political propaganda, too, is a part of our daily lives. Some of it is so subtle that we don’t even know the mind games being played on us. Deep data mining and data analytics, as evident on social media, have been successfully used to create new narratives or counteract older ones. The upshot is as stark as it is startling. We are malleable, pliable, and programmeable to the extent that we act irrationally, harming our fellow beings and ourselves. But we also are capable of being free and mentally aware so that weaponised information does not turn us into monsters. A good society will create instruments to encourage and safeguard our capacity to be self-directed and self-empowered. It will not succumb to the blandishments and advantages of a compliant, if not brainwashed populace. Only a few may be radically or exceptionally free; as to the rest, better that they be aware and critical rather than be shepherded or controlled by their handlers.advertisement(The writer is Director, Indian Institute of Advanced Study, Shimla. The views expressed are personal.)last_img

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