The problem with being “pure”.

Dawn Perlmutter - who studies symbols and "purity" in Islam and elsewhere
Dawn Perlmutter – who studies symbols and “purity” in Islam and elsewhere

The idea of being pure can be taken too far.  Not only that, but it can lead to remarkable cognitive contradictions. It is a very important motive in Islam, according to Dawn Perlmutter, who is an expert on symbols used by ideologies.
Before reading her essay, I had thought that much of Islamic behavior could be explained by an exaggerated sense of honor. For instance, there are many cases of “honor killings” where a father or brother will actually kill a daughter or sister, due to some dishonor such as her running away with the wrong man.
There is something odd about this concept – should not a Muslim be equally dishonored by accepting a bribe? And we could ask a Muslim member of ISIS, why is it not a dishonor to force captive infidel women into slavery? Though it is not likely that members of ISIS would sit down for an honest debate.

However, honor is not everything.  Purity is also a big driving force, and I’ll first quote some findings of Ms. Perlmutter:

First of all, most religions believe you should purify yourself before communicating with your God. 
In Islam that purity is equated to honor.
Purity requires ritual washing. For instance, you should wash yourself before handling a Koran.  And like germs, impurity is contagious. Impurity causes dishonor.

If an enemy occupies your holy sites, or your wife is subject to “sexual violation” — that qualifies as impurity.
That explains to me why women who are raped are often treated as guilty in the Muslim world.
“True believers experience ritual uncleanness as an impurity of the soul as much as of the body, and for this reason it cannot be washed away with water and soap.”
Dawn adds the purity rites “deeply embeds visceral responses that can make it difficult or even unbearable to assimilate to other traditions.”
I’m not sure she is right there that purity alone is responsible, after all, if you believe any religion intensely, I would think you will look with hostility and suspicion at any person who tries to weaken your allegiance.

And here we get to another interesting point. I remember a defender of Islam saying that “Jihad” was really an internal purification. He’s partly right, but:

“The spiritual struggle for self-purification is described as the greater jihad, an internal effort to lead a pure good life. Self-purification as the sole definition of jihad is the meaning that Islamist apologists choose to focus on, as opposed to holy war, the physical outer struggle of jihad, a purification of Islam through violence. … Personal jihad purifies through water. Political jihad purifies through blood.”

Almost “all natural bodily functions are designated as impure,” which is the reason, that when you reach the Islamic heaven, you don’t have them any more. There you will have “a pure body devoid of all excretions” and you will have “shame-free drinking and sex.” The women of Paradise are described as pure which is often misinterpreted in the West to mean that the women are virgins. However, it also means they never have to go the bathroom.

A Muslim who believes all this will naturally look at our Western culture  as a filthy culture, and a contagious impurity that could affect him too.  I can empathize somewhat: I recently saw an article on a sex-crazed American celebrity named Miley Cyrus.  The article’s first sarcastic line was “Time to Break out the Burqa?” (NY Post)   You really just have to read the paper to see signs of cultural collapse, including one article I just saw on 300 Rutgers University Coeds signing up to a service where they “befriend” older men in return for money for their huge student loans. But I digress.

I remember when a Muslim threw a shoe at then-President George Bush. It was more than a convenient missile though: shoes are the definitive symbol of impurity because they continually come in direct contact with inherently unclean things…For this reason, shoes are not worn in mosques, shrines, temples, or peoples’ homes and are frequently used in demonstrations and thrown in protests as a highly symbolic insult.

Good and evil can be confused with pure and impure. One preacher, addressing worshipers at the Green Lane Mosque in Birmingham, characterized homosexuals as “perverted, dirty, filthy dogs who should be murdered”.

Likewise, “On September 30, 2005, a Danish newspaper published a set of editorial cartoons, many of which depicted Muhammad, that led to over 200 deaths, attacks on diplomatic missions, churches, Christians and an international boycott of Denmark.”

From all the above, we might conclude that these cartoons were an attack on the sacred, and an attack on honor, and an impurity and stain that had to be be cleansed. And they were cleansed – by the Jihadists in France who shot cartoonists responsible.

(I recall an interesting fact about the cartoons, which is that at least one Muslim religious leader lied about what was in them, to make them seem more insulting than they were).

In fact, even unbelievers who do nothing to anyone “symbolize evil in the form of contagious pollution.”

Robert Lifton, a psychiatrist who interviewed the Nazi “doctors” who operated on live Jews, and also studied the re-education sessions that US POWs were subject to had some thoughts on purity, and Permutter quotes him.
“In his book The Broken Connection: On Death and the Continuity of Life, Robert Jay Lifton describes one of Hitler’s greatest rhetorical talents as portraying the Jew as an impure, life-threatening force to the German people: “The Jew was the embodiment of moral decay—of physical and sexual perversion, spiritual petrifaction, and cultural degeneracy. The images are closely linked to death and deterioration—the Jews as carriers of filth and disease, of plague and syphilis and ‘racial tuberculosis,’ as spreaders of every kind of ‘poison,’ and as parasites, vampires, bloodsuckers, and racial contaminators.”

You see one upshot of all this “impurity” combined with conspiracy theories was this:
The fear of infectious impurity corresponds with several full-blown Muslim conspiracy theories claiming that the West infected Muslims with diseases. Allegations include … that America infected Africans with AIDS through Christian missionary groups by putting the virus in medicine used to inoculate people. The conspiracy theory that Americans were lacing polio vaccines to sterilize Muslims resulted in an epidemic of polio in sixteen Muslim countries in Africa and Asia where polio had been eradicated.

It also partly explains why Osama Bin Laden did not want American troops in Saudi Arabia, even though they were defending Arabia.
He justified the 9/11 attacks as a response to humiliation and defilement of sacred places: “Our umma (nation) has been tasting this humiliation and contempt for over 80 years. Its sons have been slain, its blood has been shed and its sacred places have been defiled …..

The Christian world is not exempt from themselves overdoing the impurity theme as is shown by the following:
One of the more prevalent Islamist expressions is “dirty infidel.” An Arabic language Google search of the phrase produces over four hundred results often in combination with other popular slurs such as “filthy” and “dog”. The phrase “Dirty Jew” produced over ten thousand results in Arabic and over fifty-nine thousand results in English.

I agree with the Muslims that cleanliness should be striven for. We should maintain our honor, as much as is possible. But what does that mean? If honor means courage in the service of what you believe is right, and self-control when faced with urges that lead you or others to disaster, then fine. If it means honesty, and fair-dealing – then go for it. But if cleanliness is “purity” in the sense that you feel that those you do not believe in your God are contaminating filthy beings, then your desire for purity shuts you off from them. And if every natural function of the bunch of cells that make up your body is considered a source of shame, then you feel bad about yourself, and in an endless battle with contamination.  We are all less than perfect, but we should concentrate on our real flaws, not on whether our body secretes fluids or not.

And ultimately, when .. “sacred violence is a cleansing ritual that functions as expiation of individual shame and as a method to cleanse Islam …” then innocent people get killed by fanatics.

The Demand for Purity: The Nature of Islamist Symbolism, Protest, and Violence by Dawn Perlmutter

The following is not a source, but it is an outfit that Dawn directs which helps solve crimes using knowledge of symbols.  The website is:


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s