Middle-east Arab News Opinion | Asharq Al-awsat

In Defense of Madness - ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive
Select Page

Two female suicide bombers described as mentally disturbed detonated themselves in two pet markets in Iraq causing the deaths of 100 people. The aftermath of the blasts left behind a carnage of victims covered in bird feathers and resulted in launching a campaign against the Al Qaeda movement, which had no reservations against using the mentally disabled to execute its atrocious operations. Indeed, the attacks were appalling and are a reflection of the absence of ethical regulations in this confused war.

Al Qaeda, its youth, women and preachers have always been deemed mentally incapacitated and disturbed by Arab and Western media alike, which leads us to question the definition of madness that is usually associated with these people.

If the reports prove true, the two aforementioned female suicide bombers suffer from Down’s Syndrome, which means that this is not a case of madness or dementia but rather a case of diagnosed mental incapacitation. Therefore, there is no need to use the term ‘madness’, which is problematic due to its long history of political and social exploitation. It is also a term that is easily ascribed to some within the context of anything that differs from what is prevalent.

Despite the huge reservations attached to the term ‘madness’, who could truly be described as a demented individual? Is it the person who blew their body up or the other who turned a blind eye to this nihilistic suicide bomber, fed and nurtured him/her and guarded his/her intellect against criticism and disapproval until a catastrophe unfolded? And yet when that happens, the latter disown the former and say: “I am not associated with you; I see what you cannot see!”

Returning to the basic idea: neurosis is a hugely problematic issue; how can one differentiate between madness and genius? How can we discern the famous thin line that divides the two, and how can we save the strictly academic definition of neurosis from the bane of politicization? Meaning, how can we differentiate between accusing any individual who is different, on whatever level, from being labeled mad or deviant? These two accusations are synonymous in the dictionary of general social rules and in defining and demarking the boundaries of what may be deemed true madness devoid of any political or social manipulation.

One of the first to tackle redefining madness and reconsidering it within its long and elaborate history in mainstream society was French philosopher Michel Foucault who died in 1984. He wrote an important book entitled “Madness and Civilization: A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason”, which was translated into Arabic by Saeed Bankrad.

In his book, Foucault discusses symbolic worlds and all the imagined perceptions that the human imagination has created in order to set the borders of a strange world, which is the world of madness and the demented. It is a world that is replete with delusions and inspiration, as well as various forms of alienation, segregation and expulsion. Everything is determined according to the paradigms of these [illusory] worlds through an intersection that cannot be detected and which separates between “the objective truth of insanity” (which will soon end up in an insane asylum) and the delusional worlds of a demented individual. These are worlds that have infiltrated into all forms of human expression: literature, art, philosophy and social regulations.

However, the most compelling image featured by Foucault is the Ship of Fools on which mad people were sent away on a ship as an exclusionary practice to oust them from the city. The idea is that the ship sails into the unknown until the ‘fools’ regain their sanity. This is a real practice that began when lepers were sent away on ships, since leprosy was believed to be a demonic disease. This later developed into arresting mad individuals and quarantining them in one place.

Such practices were prevalent in various parts of Europe, for example, in 1399; a group of sailors were assigned the task of ridding the city of a madman who roamed the streets naked. In the early 15th Century, a mad criminal was sent away in the same manner and sailors were also known to sometimes toss these people off ships before reaching the final destination. Foucault believes that there is a metaphoric symbolism which is: although madness is held in contempt, it is this very madness that guides the ship.

Such madness which has been, and continues to be, condemned is what led to major transformations in the history of humanity. If it were not for it, we would not have poetic gems and philosophical truths. This is because the mad, or the geniuses according to the social euphemism, think in an “unconventional” manner that goes beyond the prevailing realm of thought since if they had thought like everyone else no change would have come about.

In his extensive and thought-provoking study published by the distinguished Oman-based Nizwa magazine, Hashim Saleh tackles the history and notion of madness and its relationship with the founders of today’s civilized world, in addition to the contemporary intellectual, literary and artistic worlds in which we live. Among the most intriguing points that he made was the differentiation between a genius and a madman.

So, is it true to say that all geniuses are psychologically disabled or mad?

French writer Andre Maurois posed the following question: “Are all novelists mad or only ill-tempered?” He answered this by saying, “It would be more accurate to say that they would have all become mad if they hadn’t become novelists… Madness is what creates artists and art is what cures it.”

Saleh also refers to a notion that would enrage conservative minds that favor stability; it was posed by the psychologist Jean Etienne Esquirol who stated that all the major figures in history are “ill”. He cites [Blaise] Pascal and Jean Jacques Rousseau as among some of the examples, despite the varying degrees of madness that they suffered. However, what may be deemed a common denominator between such personalities is their rejection of conventions and their passion for change and discovery, in addition to embarking upon a journey to discover the unknown in the realms of the mind, soul, spirit and art. This is why personalities like these are usually deemed anti-social and favor seclusion, alienation and marginalization whilst rejecting social restraints.

It is true that the matter may sometimes transcend to heights that the public’s general mind refuses to accept. We sometimes read about the “audacity” of some individuals who dare to be different, or who violate social laws and reject societal constraints and the prevalent culture, which they shun and abandon. In this context, the case of German philosopher Schopenhauer’s would be extremely interesting to mention, as Saleh states in his study. Schopenhauer was described as having a strange and difficult disposition, in addition to having certain psychological traits, such as megalomania, which compelled him to claim that he was Jesus Christ and the only person in possession of the truth! This fit of megalomania was later accompanied with feelings of abject humiliation.

But before mocking this man, we must first look at his contribution to philosophy and how he influenced European philosophy in the same way that another “madman,” Nietzsche to be precise, did. In our Arab history, those who were “different,” let us not say the insane, have always been the main target of mockery and criticism and sometimes, perhaps most of the time, the main target of deterrence, intimidation and punishment. This is because it is believed that they threaten “stability” and the status quo. If these unusual individuals are not severely punished by the authorities through imprisonment, murder or banishment for example, they are punished by the social mind, described as “lepers” and deemed a threat to the psychological health and mentality of the public. In turn, these individuals, through the public’s eyes, are to be feared and the public refrains from mentioning them as a part of a plan to isolate them so as to limit any influence they may have that could lead to “upsetting public security”. These were the very words used by the Egyptian writer Saleh Eissa who described the popular Egyptian poet Ahmed Fouad Negm as “a poet who upsets public security.”

Does this mean that we should agree with whatever is put forward by those individuals who are insane or different? Absolutely not. However, had it not been for them and their own contributions and inputs to the efforts of others then no major changes would have taken place with regard to the human mind, culture and history.

Madness is not outright insanity nor is it idiocy; rather, it is the moment that man dares to go beyond his own limits, to turn the page over and think in an innovative and different way. Let us say that the difference between an insane person and a genius lies in the capacity to recover from insanity through production and creativity.

And today, in our Arab world, is there a state of insanity or brilliance or is it a state that cannot be easily categorized?

Let us look at the situation in Iraq from which emerged a man such as [Ahmed bin al Hassan] al Yamani who has caused much trepidation in Basra and Nasiriyah as he considers himself the awaited Mahdi, prophesizing his advent to his supporters and claiming that the Jewish prophet Elijah would be one of his followers. This man is supported by tens of intellects and university affiliates according to the head of Basra’s police force.

Or let us look at the discussions and main concerns of Arab and Islamic public opinion and the idea of the approach of Judgment Day and the prevalence of topics such as black magic that frequently feature in religious television programs, which mostly indicate complete alienation from this age; moreover, let us look at the realm of public political and social thought that has remained unchanged for the past 1000 years.

Observe and question: Are we in need of a “rational madman” to break the cycle and to speak and think in an innovative way even if he is considered deviant at first? I wonder…

Mshari Al-Zaydi

Mshari Al-Zaydi

Mshari Al-Zaydi is a Saudi journalist and expert on Islamic movements and Islamic fundamentalism, as well as on Saudi affairs. He is Asharq Al-Awsat’s opinion page editor. Mr. Zaydi has worked for the local Saudi press, and has been a guest on numerous news and current affairs programs as an expert on Islamic extremism.

More Posts