In the aftermath of WWII people began to ask how the perpetrators of atrocities such as those who ran the Nazi death camps were not restrained by conscience.
|Nazis shooting Jews|
One explanation put forward was the “Germans are different” hypothesis. This suggested that Hitler was only able to put his evil plans into operation because Germans had a basic character defect which meant they tended to obey orders without question, regardless of the acts demanded of them.
For the purposes of psychological research, obedience is defined as doing what one is told to do by someone else. In real life, this usually works in conjunction with conformity where the example of others and social pressure also drive behaviour.
Stanley Milgram, a psychologist at Yale University, set out to test the “Germans are different” hypothesis. He set up an experiment in which subjects were told that they were studying the effects of punishment on learning.
|The "learner" is connected to the electrodes|
When the subjects were taken into the experimental situation they were met by a man in a laboratory coat who introduced himself as Jack Williams, the experimenter. Also present was a Mr Wallace, supposedly another subject, in his late fifties, an accountant.
The subject and Mr Wallace were told that for the purpose of the experiment one of them would be the teacher and the other the learner. Their roles were determined by drawing pieces of paper from a hat. In fact both pieces had “teacher” written on them. Mr Wallace (actually an accomplice of Milgram) always went first and called out “learner” so the true subject was always the teacher.
They all went into an adjoining room where the learner (Mr Wallace) was strapped into a chair with his arms attached to electrodes which would deliver a shock from a shock generator situated in an adjacent room. The subject (teacher) was given a 45 volt shock to convince him that the voltage was real.
The machine had the appearance of being able to deliver a range of shocks from “slight” (15-60 volts) all the way to “danger: severe shock” and “XXX” (450 volts).
The teacher had to read out a series of word pairs (e.g. Blue-girl) and then the first of one pair followed by five words, one of which was the original paired word. The learner had to press a switch to indicate which word belonged to the original pair. This showed up on a light panel in the teacher’s room.
Each time the learner made a mistake, the teacher had to deliver a shock, and each successive mistake was punished by a shock 15 volts higher than the one before.
In response to the shocks, the learner made progressively louder and more anguished groans of pain. At 315 volts he let out a violent scream, protesting that he was no longer willing to participate. After 330 volts there was ominous silence.
So, how many people in Milgram’s study were prepared to take follow orders into the danger zone?
65% of subjects continued to give shocks to 450 volts – beyond the danger level. All subjects continued to 300 volts.
Of course, it was all faked but the subjects believed they were giving electric shocks. Just in case you’re sceptical: many ‘teachers’ showed intense anguish, laughed nervously, twitched and grimaced; three ‘teachers’ had violent seizures.
When the subjects hesitated or questioned the experimenter, Milgram offered the following prompts:
- ‘Please continue’ or ‘Please go on’
- ‘The experiment requires you to continue’
- ‘It’s absolutely essential that you continue’
- ‘You have no other choice, you must go on’
Why did people obey?
Whilst being told what to do, we can argue that what we are doing is not our responsibility. As Milgram stood beside them and insisted they continue, they assumed he knew what he was doing and who were they to argue with a psychologist?
However, there was clearly for many an intense conflict between what they were being told to do and what their conscience was saying, and indeed how they felt about hurting someone.
In this type of situation, people will often enter what’s known as the ‘agentic state’; that is, a mental state in which they exonerate themselves from all responsibility by submitting themselves totally to the authority figure and doing his/her bidding. “I was only following orders.”
Milgram summed up his findings in this way: “A substantial proportion of people do what they are told to do, irrespective of the content of the act and without limitations of conscience, so long as they perceive that the command comes from a legitimate authority.” (Milgram, Obedience to Authority, 1974, summarised from Richard Gross “Psychology: The Study of Mind and Behaviour”.)
So, given Milgram’s conclusion above, what happens when the authority is believed to be the ultimate authority – God?
Within Islam, the chain of command is Allah > Muhammad > Muslims. Between Muhammad and Muslims there are a series of intermediaries in the form of scholars, clerics, writers of commentaries (Ibn Kaldun), Sharia jurists, mullahs, imams etc, who articulate what the ‘orders’ are.
The Koran can be read by anyone and, contrary to what some Muslims say, verses generally mean what they appear to mean and are taken to have those meanings by ‘radical’ Muslims (that is Muslims who go back to the roots – the roots being Muhammad (the Sunna ) and the Koran.).
The Koran contains hundreds of instructions, both plain and oblique, to believe. Read it and you’ll see it over and over again. Many verses begin with, “Oh ye who believe!”; warnings for those who fail to believe are abundant; the rewards for those who do believe equally so. This theme is endlessly repeated.
To command belief is to command a form of obedience. This is the first act of obedience in Islam. The failure to believe (kufr) is one of the worst sins in Islam.
Those who do not believe are denigrated and despised. The central dynamic of Islam is for believers to attack and subjugate non-believers.
9:29 Fight those who do not believe in Allah or in the Last Day and who do not consider unlawful what Allah and His Messenger have made unlawful and who do not adopt the religion of truth from those who were given the Scripture – [fight] until they give the jizyah willingly while they are humbled.
9:5 And when the sacred months have passed, then kill the polytheists wherever you find them and capture them and besiege them and sit in wait for them at every place of ambush. But if they should repent, establish prayer, and give zakah, let them [go] on their way. Indeed, Allah is Forgiving and Merciful.
9:14 Fight them; Allah will punish them by your hands and will disgrace them and give you victory over them and satisfy the breasts of a believing people.
The first act of obedience is encapsulated in the saying of the shahada: there is no God but Allah and Muhammad is his messenger.
Upon this premise further claims to obedience are built.
64:12 So obey Allah, and obey His Messenger: but if ye turn back, the duty of Our Messenger is but to proclaim (the Message) clearly and openly
8:24: O you who believe! Answer Allah (by obeying Him) and As His Messenger (obeying him) when he calls you to that which will give you life.
9:24 And Allah does not guide the defiantly disobedient people.
The following verse commands that what the believer does not like must still be followed. Even those acts which would arouse moral revulsion in a morally healthy person should be carried out.
2:216 Warfare is ordained for you, though it is hateful unto you; but it may happen that ye hate a thing which is good for you, and it may happen that ye love a thing which is bad for you. Allah knoweth, ye know not.
|IS shooting captives|
Mark Durie reports an account of an ex-Salafi from Egypt who told him that a great deal of effort is expended getting believers to do things they find repulsive, thereby erasing their natural conscience.
The psychological study of obedience has also found that people suppress their consciences when obeying instructions that they would otherwise reject on moral grounds. They abdicate personal responsibility.
Having submitted to the first act of obedience and committed to the proposition that Islam is the true religion, the believer finds himself in the position of determining what he must do. The whole edifice of Islamic scripture and the example of Muhammad supplies the answers. The believer must obey these instructions as he has committed to the premise that they are God’s instructions, otherwise he ceases to be a believer and is deemed to be an apostate. There are also clear instructions for the believers on what to do with apostates: “Whoever leaves his Islamic religion, kill him.” - Bukhari 9.84.57 (considered by Islamic scholars to be an authoritative hadith)
Commands to kill are very common in Islam.
Unlike Milgram’s subjects, Islamic believers are under pain of death to believe and therefore comply with the instructions given. The parallels with Nazi Germany are obvious. If anything, Nazi Germany was less totalitarian than Islam.
Where Milgram prompted his subjects with a gentle, “Please continue” or “You have no other choice, you must go on”, Islam has the full weight of God and accusations of apostasy for non-compliance. The common tendency among all of us to follow the orders of authority figures is greatly amplified in Islam where the religion and the cultures dominated by it are heavily authoritarian.
Muslims are brought up in an environment where there is no alternative to Islam – only persecution and death. Non-Muslims are generally vilified and instances of persecution are common. How does a person wrest themselves from such a state of submission and obedience?
Perhaps the most chilling aspect of the current situation in Iraq and Syria is the fact that millions of Muslims are actually drawn to Islamic State rather than repelled by what is being done. Apart from psycho-pathological reasons, the explanation for this is that Islamic State are fulfilling Allah’s will. They believe (and their scriptures and imams have given them every reason to believe) that what Islamic State is doing is the will of Allah and they too wish to obey his will. To do otherwise is disobedient.
Such people must be well down the road of erasing their conscience in full submission to Islamic authority. The beheading of four Christian children in Baghdad is all the evidence one needs to realise that these devout followers of Islam have jettisoned their consciences in favour of obedience to Allah’s will. To become a mindless instrument of His will is after all the goal of Muslim devotion.
In summary, Islam builds on a common human tendency to obey authority. Muhammad claimed to have the authority of God. He instituted a religion in which submission and obedience are key. The obedience demanded of Muslims by Islam conditions them to erase their conscience and submit to instructions to kill, persecute and dominate.
We must always count on the obedience of Muslims to the doctrines of Islam because the doctrines of Islam are principally about obedience. That which should not be done and that which must be done are defined down to the tiniest detail.
Unless Muslims are prepared to abandon Islam and thereby reject that first obedience, we must assume that they will “follow orders” when the time comes.
It is perhaps those four brave children from Baghdad who have shown us what is needed. Faced with the demand to submit to Allah or face a gruesome and cruel death, these four brave souls responded with, “no, we love Yesua; we have always loved Yesua; we have always followed Yesua; Yesua has always been with us”. They thereby demonstrated both great love and great courage. It is these qualities that we all need. They don’t have to be expressed in a Christian context but they do have to be expressed.