Societies of Strangers: the Western and Islamic approach

Shahid Bolsen
7 min readAug 13


If you think about the totality of our history, human beings have not lived in sprawling, cosmopolitan communities for very long. It is only relatively recently that we came up with non-familial, or non-tribal formulations to organize ourselves. The most natural organizing principle has always been family, then extended family, and growing out to tribes. And these sorts of configurations operate with more or less naturally developing sources of authority and order; but when you get bigger, and you start having communities and societies being brought together with no familial or tribal interconnections, societies of strangers, you have to codify the rules, you have to implement synthetic codes of order and conduct, and the sources of authority derive from these, authority figures, leaders, and so on, don’t attain their positions through the natural process of proving their usefulness and value to the family or to the tribe, but through the manufactured, agreed upon system of order. They’re functionaries, and their authority is derived from the system. In other words, the system is what matters, because the system is the only thing that makes a society of strangers viable. Everyone agrees to abide by the system. And that includes both written and unwritten laws. So, basically legally acceptable and unacceptable things as well as socially acceptable and unacceptable things. And all of this must be enforced very rigidly. If the legal matters tend towards lenience, then the social matters must be more coercive. If the official codes of conduct, as it were, the laws, provide for greater liberty, the social codes of conduct will demand greater conformity. Because a society of strangers is always going to be on the verge of falling apart, and the only thing that prevents that from happening is this system. So, law enforcement has prisons, and social code enforcement has ostracization, banishment, cancelling. You ostracize and marginalize people whom you deem too risky to the system of order. People who don’t conform, or who seem less invested in maintaining the artificial organizing principles of the society.

Everyone has to agree to abide by the system, the official and unofficial system. The law of the land and the social mores of the community. And anyone who does not do that has to be strictly punished, because that punishment is basically a self-defence to preserve the existence of the society itself. But, the fatal flaw in all this is that the system’s authority is unconvincing, because it’s unearned authority; conformity with it is both mandatory and arbitrary. In other words, you have to adhere to it whether you believe it or not, simply because it is necessary to adhere to it, because of its function. It has to be this way because it has to be this way; and this doesn’t inspire heartfelt conviction. So, then you have to find a way to make it convincing, and that’s where indoctrination comes in. This nation you have built of random people has to be invested with moral meaning, so that the system of order and control can be understood as something preserving moral good. But you have to be very careful about what the indoctrination presents as the moral rationale, because if, for instance, that moral rationale is, say, “Freedom”; you have just created more problems for yourself. You have complicated the task of conformity-enforcement immeasurably. And if you specify “individual freedom,” you make it even more difficult.

So, you can see some of the problems that the West has been carrying, particularly the United States, for a very long time. It is very tricky to balance the moral primacy of individual freedom against the existential social need for conformity; and the more you emphasize freedom, the more you have to covertly enforce the restrictions on freedom. With the result being that the indoctrination collides with people’s lived reality, and this causes profound cognitive dissonance. Because the system people are living in bears no real resemblance to the way the system is packaged to them. Not to put too fine a point on it, but what Westerners are told is their liberty, is actually their irrelevance. It’s like a prison yard, you are free to do whatever you like in the yard, because no matter what you do in the yard, it has no liberatory element. You are confined; and you call that confinement “freedom”.

You have constructed an artificial management system for this vast congregation of strangers, and an artificial authority structure. An authority structure and management system that is necessary, and mandatory, but inorganic — it is not a naturally occurring system based on ties of kinship. So, you have to imbue it with legitimacy by painting it with a veneer of principle. This makes people feel that their mandatory conformity and adherence to the system is voluntary, and is a product of their own belief system. But, you see, when you have placed freedom at the centre of the moral rationale for your system, it can become conspicuous very quickly that the system does not allow freedom. Because, obviously, in reality, freedom would be lethal to maintaining a society of strangers. Conformity is the necessity here. There’s a reason why the country that is most famous for being the freest country on earth — the United States — also has more laws on the books, more regulations, than any other country in the world; more than any country in history, in fact; and why it also has the highest percentage of its population in prison. So, yes, that’s conspicuous. The land obsessed with the sanctity of individual liberty, binds its citizens with more laws and regulations than any other place on earth, and jails more of its citizens than any other country. But to maintain the illusion, you are given freedom in what does not matter. You are given freedom in what does not touch the system of management and control. Freedom in trivial things, freedom in whatever will distract you from your lack of freedom. Freedom to choose between 50 kinds of toothpaste, freedom to watch pornography, freedom to fornicate, freedom to commit adultery, freedom to be homosexual, freedom to get drunk, freedom to get high; on and on. Freedom to do all the things that a more traditional, familial, tribal social structure would not allow because it has an interest in you being a moral, mature, virtuous person, a serious person, a person who brings honour and nobility to your people. So, freedom in the West is a euphemism for irrelevance. You can be a man in lipstick and high heels because ultimately you don’t matter. You can get high, you can be promiscuous, you can play video games for 10 hours a day, you can binge watch entire seasons on Netflix in one sitting, because you don’t matter as a person. But you’d better get up when your alarm clock goes off for you to go to work. Wear your seat belt and Follow traffic laws on your way to work, don’t drive in the wrong lane, and comply with all workplace rules once you get there, don’t say the wrong thing, make the wrong joke, or take too long in the bathroom, pay your bills on time, pay your taxes, don’t violate community guidelines, and pledge allegiance to the flag. You have freedom in trivialities and even that is only for a few hours a day. But it is enough to convince part of your mind that the system is protecting your freedom, the system you have no choice but to comply with.

And again, that’s because it is an artificial system, so belief in it has to be manufactured.

Now, in Islam, we also have grown well beyond familial and tribal structures; even though those structures are still present and influential in our societies. But the difference is, our belief preceded our systems of management and control; our systems developed from our beliefs; it’s organic, it’s not artificial. It is all synchronized. The moral rationale for the system is what gave birth to the system, and the moral rationale isn’t freedom and liberty, but submission to the Creator. We all believe in the laws, and we believe in the objectives of the laws, and we understand them. We don’t need to be indoctrinated, we don’t need to be fooled, or distracted, or misled into thinking that we are doing anything other than complying, because we WANT to comply, because we believe in it. We comply even when the law of the land doesn’t impose it. We comply with the Islamic system of order even when we are free not to. Our whole religion is self-compliance with the Shari’ah. This is something a lot of westerners just can’t understand. Would we like for the law of the land in Muslim countries to enforce the Shari’ah, sure, most of us would, but whether they do it or not, we are going to keep following it. In the overwhelming majority of Muslim countries alcohol is legal, adultery isn’t a crime, hijab isn’t mandatory, nobody forces you to pray, but the majority of Muslims still adhere to the Islamic rulings on these things.

I mean, there is something revealing about, you know, those Western films that take place in a post-Apocalyptic world. They always depict a lawless, anarchic, chaos of violence and banditry, and total breakdown of civilization. But in a Muslim version of a post-Apocalyptic world, we’d be the same as we are now. Our societies would still function the same way, we’d keep following the same rules we do now. No civilizational breakdown. And we know this because a lot of our countries are already suffering post-Apocalyptic conditions, thanks to the West. The destruction and desperation that you yourselves imagine would cause your people to lose their minds, millions of Muslims have already experienced, and are experiencing today, and they are adhering to the same social management system, the same moral code, they were following before your bombs fell. Those types of movies, those scenarios, and things like the Purge movies, show how much you actually distrust yourselves with freedom, that you think you can’t behave properly if you had freedom, it terrifies you. But we’d be fine. We have an infinitely greater capacity for the responsible exercise of freedom than the West.