The Power of Belief

The Power of Belief

[Chapter 1 from the book Belief by Sarfaraz K. Niazi]

“I would never die for my beliefs because I might be wrong.” Bertrand Russell

Life is our most precious asset; taking life of others or giving our own for the sake of others is the final frontier of our expression of belief. Before we kill another human, or for that matter, an animal, our mind had fully justified the killing; just before we commit suicide, whether for a cause or to relieve our suffering, our mind had fully justified the act. The 9/11 hijackers believed in: “Let those (believers) who sell the life of ‘tis world for the hereafter fight in the cause of Allah and whoso fights in the cause of Allah—and is slain or gets victory. We shall bestow on him a great reward.” (Qur’an)[1]. The carnage that followed was massive and took 3,121 lives but there were 19 who laid their lives as well believing in what the Qur’an says. The belief has remarkable power, unparalleled by any other human expression.

It was early spring of 1941 when Hitler called Himmler to his office; Himmler sat at the desk of Hitler’s secretary when Hitler announced his decision to eliminate Jews; Himmler put his head in his hands and said: "My God, my God, what I am expected to do?” The end result was that almost two-thirds of the 9 million Jews in Europe at that time were killed including one million children. If we add to this counts the homosexuals and other prisoners of war that were also executed by the Nazis, the toll rise to over 10 million people. Hitler believed that those subscribed to Judaic religion and other different lifestyles are a menace to the world and must be eliminated. In ‘Hitler Ascent 1889-1939’ by Volker Ullrich[2], we see how did Adolf Hitler — described by an eminent magazine editor in 1930 as a “half-insane rascal,” a “pathetic dunderhead,” a “nowhere fool,” a “big mouth” — rose to power in the land of Goethe and Beethoven? What persuaded millions of ordinary Germans to embrace him and his doctrine of hatred? How did this “most unlikely pretender to high state office” achieve absolute power in a once democratic country and set it on a course of monstrous horror?’ So, we see that it was not Hitler alone, but all those who allowed him to gain the supreme power to inflict this atrocity, are equally to be blamed; belief has so many sides.

When he died in 1924, Stalin had earned a place in history as one of the most ruthless rulers in the history. His style was different than the direct killing by Hitler; he triggered famine in Ukraine to destroy those asking for freedom; over 7 million perished. Thousands of intellectual were killed with point blank bullets accused of up rise against the regime. He believed that human spirit can and should be crushed by force. Stalin: The First In-depth Biography Based on Explosive New Documents from Russia's Secret Archives by Edvard Radzinsky[3] paints a picture of the Soviet strongman as more calculating, ruthless, and blood-crazed than has ever been described or imagined. Stalin was a man for whom power was all, terror a useful weapon, and deceit a constant companion.

Stalin’s script was stolen unashamedly by Ayataullah Ruholla Khomeini, the religious ruler who came to power on 19 July 1988, as began killing the majority of the supporters of the People's Mujahedin of Iran, the Fedaian and the Tudeh Party of Iran (Communist Party), as well as the intellectuals, including the past prime minister of Iran. Khomeini believed that those who do not believe in his values of religion should be eliminated to preserve religion. He destroyed a beautiful country. In his famous Little Green Book [4] he states: Jihad means the conquest of all non-Muslim territories. Such a war may well be declared after the formation of an Islamic government worthy of that name, at the direction of the Imam or under his orders. It will then be the duty of every able-bodied adult male to volunteer for this war of conquest, the final aim of which is to put Qur'anic law in power from one end of the earth to the other. But the whole world should understand that the universal supremacy of Islam is considerably different from the hegemony of other conquerors. It is therefore necessary for the Islamic government first to be created under the authority of the Imam in order that he may undertake this conquest, which will be distinguishable from all other wars of conquest, which are unjust and tyrannical and disregard the moral and civilizing principles of Islam. That is how he justified his acts. This book is full of minutiae of how we should live day by day that it almost appears comical, yet millions hold this book in the highest esteem, no different than the Mao’s Red Book.

It all began in 2003 and continues today, when a group of government agents funded by Arab militia, loosely translated as “devils on the horseback” began killing the populace of Darfur; they destroyed entire villages, murdering and raping as they tortured their own kind to tune of more than half a million and displacing over 3 million. The Sudanese rulers believed that force is the only solution to motivate people into submission. In Gerard Prunier’s book[5] we see why the conflict in Darfur qualified as genocide? He questions whether Darfur isn't horrible enough to justify a claim on the world's conscience?

The ethnic cleansing started by Hitler continued to raise its ugly head as we see the genocide of Bosnian Muslims at Srebrenica and Zepa by Bosnian Serb forces in 1994. General Mladic believed that ethnic cleansing is the only way to purify a nation. From 1993-1995, millions of Bosnian Muslims were killed. It was not until the summer of 1995 that the US decided to intervene that the genocide came to an end. [6]

The Geneva Centre for the Democratic Control of Armed Forces (DCAF) reports that the demographic shortfall of women who have died for gender related issues is in the range of over 200 million in the twentieth century[7]. Female infanticide in India has a history spanning centuries. In 1990 the census figures showed there were 25 million more men in India than women. But by 2001, the figures for the gender difference were up to 35 million more males than females, and by 2005 it was estimated at 50 million. Millions believe that a female child brings shame, liability and a life-long embarrassment.

Honor killing is common in intellectually depressed and religiously intense societies, and often one is a result of the other. Honor is a collective valuation of the society we live in; the son of Madoff in NY committed suicide[8] for the shame his father brought on the family.

The Japanese Minister Toshikatsu Matsuoka killed himself on the World Suicide Prevention Day. The weekly magazine Shukan Shincho, was getting ready to print a story involving Matsushita and an affair involving a woman. In 2007, the agriculture minister Toshikatsu Matsuoka hung himself after allegations of fiscal misconduct. [9]

In Toronto, Mohammad Shafia, 62, his wife Tooba, 45, and their son Hamed, 24, were sentenced to life in prison with no chance of parole for 25 years for four counts of first-degree murder in the deaths of Shafia sisters Zainab, 19, Sahar, 17, Geeti, 13, and Rona Amir, 52, Shafia’s first wife in the polygamous 10-member Afghan family that came to Canada in 2007 and settled in Montreal. The three were enraged because they felt that the teenage daughters had violated cultural rules requiring sexual modesty, they were disobedient and the two eldest girls had boyfriends. Rona wanted a divorce and supported the girls in their pursuit of western lifestyles.[10] Killing others who have shamed us is a norm in many societies for they believe this a just punishment.

Human history events, as I ascribed above is filled with human acts that defy imagination.

What makes us to commit these acts finds its roots in our belief system—a set of arguments that we form in our mind—a set of arguments that require a language—a set of closing of arguments that we find satisfying.

This chapter is about the nature of the belief system, a highly controversial, widely debated and perhaps in the mind of many, an illusionary topic that is difficult to comprehend.

Belief formation begins at birth. What we see, hear and are told gets hard wired quickly. Parents inculcate many biases and myths in our mind, these beliefs can take a form of religious, racial, or sexist differentiation. If you are born in a Jewish family, you will believe that you are among the “chosen people” by God, as a Jew; Muslims believe the same, but as Muslims. What we hear also affects our belief. The advertising campaign of Estee Lauder, “I am worth it,” changed the way women shop, not just the cosmetics, but everything. Clichés have a way finding their way in our everyday language strengthening our beliefs not just related to the products but what they represent. We get brain-washed early in our life to beliefs that we may struggle with for the rest of our lives if we wanted to lose them, partly because of the family pressure and partly because of the norms of the society we live in.

The process of belief formation goes through a structured process as we grow older. [11] Between 3 and 7 years of age, we become aware of time, form images of events and things and show a subtle egocentric nature—this is called the intuitive-predictive stage. From 6-12, we become aware of the stories and beliefs of the local community and become aware of our experiences. This stage is called mythical-literal. Past 12 years, our faith extends beyond the family and we begin creating a sense of identity and values. This stage is called synthetic-conventional. Our early adulthood brings a sense of identity and we develop an outlook on the world as we develop an explicit system of finding meaning in observations. This stage is called individuative-reflective. As an adult, we could be conjunctive facing the paradoxes of experience and begin developing universal ideas towards other people and also start universalizing them, a rather rare stage where we become altruistic and feel ourselves as an integral part of an all-inclusive sense of being.

The formation of beliefs is not a conscious effort, this soup cooks in the background of our mind without us realizing and without us appreciating what is causing a transformation of our mind. What we are taught, both deliberately or subtly affects our mind indelibly. The Bible teaches: Do not be deceived: God is not mocked, for whatever one sows, that will he also reap. [12] This teaching is a good example how we create just beliefs in our mind. The civil laws, we come to believe provides justice to all. If you steal or rob, you will go to jail, besides going to hell hereafter. The just-world belief, while giving solace to us, derails our thinking when we examine the real world around us. We have no difficulty believing universally that if you work hard, you will become rich; if you are kind to people, you will be loved, and so on. You get what you deserve, is a paradigm that takes deeper root in our minds. We begin to believe that those who suffer, have brought this on themselves through their deeds. You see someone serving a sentence, you see a defaulter. You see a homeless person, and you begin to see a lazy inept person; when you see a rich person like Donald Trump you begin to believe that it was all hard work that made him wealthy. We become used to thinking all misfortunes are because of their own doing.

The just-world belief system inculcated into us by our parents, by our teachers and by our society is one reason why our society is unjust. It was not the hard work that made Donald Trump rich; a beggar on the street may have suffered a bad fortune; not all good deeds result in good end, and above all, not everyone gets justice in the court. The just belief system inculcates bias in our thinking that ends up harming our ability to judge more than it helps. Why then do we promote just belief? It was necessary to bring peace and harmony, if not justice in the society; if we were not told of justice in this world and the world hereafter, we will see nothing but anarchy.

Another type of belief, an automatic belief starts with “seeing is believing,” when we start our assessment whether what we see or hear is true or not. While is many situations we are able to get a correct rendition of what see, but as I will dwell in detail later, our seeing senses can be overstrained if we are tired or strained. In a study by Gilbert, Tafarodi and Malone (1993)[13] people were asked to read crime reports and recommend prison sentences; many false statement in the report were marked in red. Those who were tired, accepted these false statement more readily because it required strenuous introspection for which they were not ready. One can also include the demonstration of déjà vu in this category as well. The term déjà vu is French and means, literally, "already seen." Those who have experienced the feeling describe it as an overwhelming sense of familiarity with something that shouldn't be familiar at all. This happens often when are traveling and come across a street corner or a building and immediately recognize it; this happens because our sensory nerves slowdown in recognizing what you have just recorded seeing. friends, same dinner, same topic.

A proselytic belief involves preaching others your belief, such as religious thoughts; The verses of Quran recommend all Muslims to proselytize non-Muslims to leave their religion and join Islam;  However, proselytization and apostasy of Muslims to leave Islam and join another religion is considered a religious crime in Islamic scriptures.[14] Currently, several Muslim nations award death sentence for apostasy, others severe punishment. The blog of Daniel Pipes[15], who widely claimed that Barack Obama is a Muslim and for the act of apostasy, punishable by Sharia law to death.

The adversative belief involves killing those who will shun your belief; no better example than what we see in the making of the ISIS. Also, when we see pro-life defenders going out burning abortion clinics. Ethnic cleansing, the Holocaust and most recently the Orlando massacre of gays provides glaring examples of this type of belief. Even when some do not go as far as killing, the maligning of other’s belief also falls in this category.

How these beliefs are formed is complex; before we can arrive at the conclusion what to believe, this complexity must be deconstructed.


[2] Hitler Ascent 1889-1939 by Volker Ullrich. Alfred A. Knopf, New York, NY; Tra edition (September 6, 2016)

[3] Stalin: The First In-depth Biography Based on Explosive New Documents from Russia's Secret Archives by Edvard Radzinsky, Anchor Books, New York, NY. 1997.


[5] Darfur: A 21st Century Genocide, Third Edition (Crises in World Politics) by Gerard Prunier, Cornell University Press, Third edition (August 2008)









[14] J. Sperber (2000), Christians and Muslims: The Dialogue Activities, Theologische Bibliothek Topelmann, Walter de Gruyter, p. 66 and David Kerr (2000), Islamic Da 'wa and Christian Mission: Towards a comparative analysis, International Review of Mission, Volume 89, Issue 353, pages 150–171

[15] (