In the 18th century, the Baghdad-based Armenian merchant Owannis Moradian attempted to convince the people of Baghdad of the necessity of vaccination. His fervour for scientific developments and technology made him eager to spread the culture of vaccination in Baghdad as he was convinced that it would protect them from smallpox. However, he struggled in his initial attempts due to widespread misinformation based on religious convictions that made the people of Baghdad hesitant to accept this novel medical innovation. Moradian overcame these challenges by getting through to the chief Mufti of Baghdad, whom he knew could shape public opinions. He convinced the Mufti to be vaccinated in public in the presence of prominent luminaries and his family members. The example set by the Mufti helped to dispel preconceived notions on vaccination that the people had before. Consequently, as many as 5,400 children were vaccinated, and Moradian’s campaign expanded to another city in Iraq, Mosul, with the help of a local priest. The story of Moradian provides valuable insights into the interplay between science and religion. Including religious figures such as the Mufti in vaccination campaigns was extremely important in building public trust. However, it could not have been possible if there was a lack of appreciation of scientific thinking and development both from the Mufti and the public. There was a recognition of expertise that provided space for science to flourish alongside religion to examine the possible benefits and harms of medical innovations.
The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed and exacerbated fault lines in societies globally. One of them is the impoverishment of scientific thinking and education on vaccination. In a period where we pride ourselves on the advantages of living in an age of science, the reaction of anti-vaxxers and its movement ironically shows the failure of our education system to think critically. Science is not an inside job that mobilises a group of people working in secret against the public good by creating and aggravating diseases for profitability. Science is a way of thinking about things based on empirical verification. When one makes a claim about an empirical phenomenon that will harm people, science necessitates the backing of such claims by demonstrating that it is factually and empirically harming people. Likewise, if a thing is perfectly safe, one must demonstrate that it is perfectly safe. Having said that, it is not to say that science is faultless. The way in which certain strains in modern science today operate is devoid of its metaethical qualities. Thus, it should not stop us from questioning and accepting science uncritically. However, there is a vast difference between questioning and replacing science with unproven, misleading theories. Such anti-scientific thinking is dangerous not just to global security but, more importantly, it presents a serious threat to the future of human life.
The development of empirically safe vaccines has provided us with tools to fight the pandemic. With more than 8 billion doses already administered it is regarded as the most extensive vaccination campaign in humankind’s history, which provides us with light at the end of a dark tunnel. However, the pandemic has also created a vicious trail of misinformation and conspiracy theories that mobilised strong opposition to vaccinations. Although this resistance has not prevented countries from reaching high vaccination rates, the antagonism cannot be ignored. There have been reports of anti-vaxxers intimidating healthcare personnel and pressurising others to seek alternative treatments that are unproven and harmful to prevent or treat COVID-19. This article will attempt to briefly outline and examine some of the main trends driving the anti-vaccine movement. Accordingly, it will provide some recommendations to reclaim the appreciation for critical thinking and expertise.
DEATH OF EXPERTISE
We are living in a world mired in relativism and rejection of expertise. Social media has democratised avenues of knowledge in a peculiar way that has made almost everyone on an equal footing regardless of their background. Authority no longer belongs categorically to experts. Rather, it is now with those who have the most significant number of followers and shout the loudest on the internet. We are witnessing what Tom Nichols calls the “death of expertise”: the leveling of hierarchy between teachers and students, professionals and laymen, and knowers and wonderers. To put it simply, there is no difference between those who spend years building scholarship in a field and those who did their half-baked ‘research’ on the internet overnight. Nichols clarifies that the death of expertise does not imply the death of actual expert abilities. Instead, it refers to the death of any recognition of expertise to augment the way we live. Laypeople, including anti-vaxxers, launch attacks on established knowledge, thinking that they know better, indicates an increasingly narcissistic culture and unfounded arrogance that cannot endure the slightest hint of a hierarchy of any kind.
Critics may argue that everyone has the right to participate in the public sphere, which is valid to a certain extent as the freedom to express is a fundamental human right. However, all discussions must be conducted within limits and include a certain degree of competence to discuss the subject matter. Unfortunately, competence is sorely lacking in the public sphere due to an information glut created by the internet that has penetrated every aspect of our lives, from the unmissable advertisements to the countless chain messages on our social media accounts. As a disclaimer, the article is not suggesting that the internet is to be blamed for the world’s problems. In fact, the convenience of the internet has been an incredible boon. But when it comes to solving issues, the internet is designed for those already trained in research and have a clear idea of generating solutions for the common good. More importantly, the deeper issue is that the internet is altering the way we read knowledge, the way we reason our arguments, even the way we perceive each other, and all for the worse. It is mainly because we expect information instantly to give the impression that we are well-informed and intelligent. In reality, it stems from the fear that the lack of information will make us redundant and disenfranchised from the broader society. This compounded ignorance is apparent in the arguments of the anti-vaccine movement. Proponents of this movement may have fallen victim to a cognitive bias known as the Dunning Kruger effect, in which they overestimate their knowledge of vaccines and underestimate how much they do not know. The lack of intellectual humility is dangerous as it makes us oblivious to the implications of our thinking.
MAINSTREAMING FAR-RIGHT RHETORIC
Research has shown that vaccine hesitancy sentiments are directly linked to a persistent decline in public trust in institutions and government policies. In recent years, this trend and the increasing political polarisation globally have moulded the anti-vaccine movement in its current form. Thus, it is unsurprising to see far-right movements latching on the anti-vaxxers’ vulnerabilities to stir mistrust in the government by spreading conspiracy theories. While in the past, the far-right rhetoric has always been on the fringes of society, the rapid rise of digital media over the past decade has changed the status quo by allowing such ideas to be accessible to anyone as long as they have a smartphone or computer. Social media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook have allowed far-right movements to build ecosystems and feed users with misinformation. Facebook has defended itself by claiming that it is tackling COVID-19 misinformation in collaboration with the World Health Organization. However, critics would argue that more can be done by these tech giants as falsehoods about the vaccine are still reaching millions of people. The lack of inaction should be unsurprising as big tech companies cannot be relied upon to self-regulate disinformation because of their business model. According to a report by the Center for Countering Digital Hate (CCDH), a UK-based organisation, it exposes how these tech companies power an anti-vax ecosystem worth an estimated $1 billion in annual revenue for social media giants. This revenue primarily comes from advertisers who want to reach users interested in antivaccine misinformation and expenditure on ads to reach a wider audience.
From conspiratorial paranoia to a theology of imagination
Conspiracy theory is the belief that a number of actors join together in secret agreement in order to achieve a hidden goal that is perceived to be unlawful or malevolent. It can take many forms in many different spheres of life. It is a defensive reaction to feelings of uncertainty and fear, blaming dissimilar outgroups for the distressing circumstances. Though conspiracy theories have existed for the longest time, the digital revolution has congealed the ubiquity of these theories that turns this fear into paranoia. This thinking is precarious as it is disengaged from objective truths, and more worryingly, its volatility can cause harm to society at large. Conspiratorial paranoia has no place in the Islamic intellectual tradition. As Muslims, our theology is an active response towards God and the realities of the world.
The modern world, increasingly mechanised and digital, necessitates the construction of theology based on the religious imagination. Nguyen explains this conception where scripture, reason, and imagination are brought into harmony. When faithfully organised, the imagination allows us to discover all that would incline us to the Divine, whether it emerges from the expanse of his creations or the depths of revelation. As God introduced Himself through the verbal and non-verbal signs thus, it is our duty as His vicegerents to explore and discern these signs. In a tumultuous world shaped by data and post-truth narratives, the religious imagination has much to offer to the conversation in reclaiming humanity.
The primacy of functioning intellectuals
According to Alatas, an intellectual is an individual engaged in thinking about ideas and non-material problems using the faculty of reason. As a collective, a functioning intellectual group is necessary for nation-building. In its absence, society will not be in a position to 1) pose a problem; 2) define the problem; 3) analyse the problem, and; 4) suggest solutions for the problem. Although Alatas’ idea emerged from a specific social milieu, this intellectual process remains as relevant today as ever before. In the age of misinformation, a functioning intellectual class needs to serve as the voice of critique and truth against falsehood. It is essential to recognise that being critical of anti-vaccine does not mean dismissing their concerns entirely. However, it requires transcending confirmation biases and addressing the issue with evidence-based data from multiple vantage points. Against this backdrop, we should avoid celebrating anti-intellectuals. Alatas describes such a group as passive mentally, does not exert himself thinking about different problems, and cannot form an opinion beyond what is evident to most people. The brilliant Jewish scholar Hannah Arendt argues that it was sheer ‘thoughtlessness’ which allowed the Nazi soldiers to commit atrocities on a massive scale. Thus the absence of thinking will allow evil to flourish. We must ensure that there will always be a space for functioning intellectuals to build a humane society.
According to the erudite scholar Naquib al-Attas, one of the main factors for the malaise of our intellectual heritage is the disintegration of adab. Al-Attas defines adab as an all-inclusive concept that encompasses man’s spiritual and material life and is conceptually linked with wisdom (hikmah) and justice (‘adl). Thus, the loss of adab would naturally create confusion and the prevalence of harm. Additionally, Al-Attas believes that this disintegration would undermine society’s educational and moral fabric as society is incapable of recognising true leaders and putting false unqualified ones on a pedestal to determine matters of knowledge. It makes our knowledge erroneous and creates false leadership in every field. The anti-vaccine movement, as explained earlier, is an example of this disintegration of knowledge where an influencer can be more powerful and authoritative than a doctor on scientific developments.
That being said, it is equally important to make a distinction between those who are unvaccinated for underlying medical reasons and those who outrightly reject vaccination for unsubstantiated reasons and aggressively impose it on others. Additionally, being pro-vaccination should not make us blind to structural issues that have affected those on the margins. One of them is the hoarding of vaccines by rich countries, potentially resulting in thousands of deaths from COVID-19 in developing countries. It is a form of neo-colonialism that needs to be dismantled. At the end of the day, as Muslims and people of faith, we can either adopt a narcissistic attitude towards vaccines that can cause harm to others regardless of which end of the spectrum you sit on vaccination, or we can embrace reciprocity as a social ethic that is fundamental in developing an equitable and just society. One that recognises our human and civic duties. ⬛
1 Ghaly, M. Islamic Ethical Perspectives on Vaccination: The Interplay of Science and Religion in the Age of COVID-19. 2021, February 14. Retrieved from: https://www.cilecenter.org/resources/articles-essays/islamic-ethical-perspectives-vaccination-interplay-science-and-religion
2 Blaskiewicz, R. The Big Pharma conspiracy theory. Medical Writing, 22:4, 2013. pp. 259-261. Retrieved from: https://doi.org/10.1179/2047480613Z.000000000142
3 Schmid, P., and Lewandowsky, S. How to fight COVID vaccine misinformation? Al Jazeera. 2021, October 22. Retrieved from: https://www.aljazeera.com/opinions/2021/10/22/fighting-vaccine-misinformation
4 gov.sg. Misleading claims that Ivermectin is effective against COVID-19. 2021, October 20. Retrieved from: https://www.gov.sg/article/misleading-claims-that-ivermectin-is-effective-against-covid-19
5 Nichols, T. The Death of Expertise. Oxford University Press. 2017. p. 3
6 Ibid, p. 4
7 Ibid, p. 110
8 Schroeder, R. Digital media and the rise of right-wing populism, in Social Theory after the Internet: Media, Technology, and Globalization. London: UCL Press. 2018. pp. 60-81
9 Ndiaye, A. Together against COVID-19 misinformation: A new campaign in collaboration with the WHO. Meta. 2021, March 10. Retrieved from: https://www.facebook.com/formedia/blog/together-against-covid-19-misinformation-a-new-campaign-in-partnership-with-the-who
10 Paul, K. ‘A systemic failure’: vaccine misinformation remains rampant on Facebook, experts say. The Guardian. 2021, July 21. Retrieved from: https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2021/jul/21/facebook-misinformation-vaccines
11 Centre for Countering Digital Hate. The Anti-Vaxx Industry: How Big Tech powers and profits from vaccine misinformation. 2020. p. 31. Available at: https://252f2edd-1c8b-49f5-9bb2-cb57bb47e4ba.filesusr.com/ugd/f4d9b9_6910f8ab94a241cfa088953dd5e60968.pdf
12 Prooijen, J. The Psychology of Conspiracy Theories. New York: Routledge. 2018. pp. 5-12
13 Nguyen, M. Modern Muslim Theology. London: Rowman & Littlefield. 2019. p. 76
14 Alatas, H. Intellectuals in Developing Societies. New York: Routledge, 2016. p. 15
15 Ibid, pp. 15-16
16 Arendt, H. Eichmann in Jerusalem A Report on the Banality of Evil. New York: Penguin Books. 2006. p. 11
17 Universiti Teknologi Malaysia. “Arriving at the Problem of Knowledge”: RZS-CASIS Saturday Night Lecture 10th Series. 2020, August 7. Retrieved from: https://www.utm.my/casis/blog/2020/08/07/arriving-at-the-problem-of-knowledge/?fbclid=IwAR12TR7g_1Ziay9_Yv6Z3LVnBEduABbHozh-8RgWuLruotpxSsBBRtNF5-M
Sheikh Mohamad Farouq Abdul Fareez is a Research Analyst at the Centre for Research on Islamic and Malay Affairs (RIMA). He holds a Master’s degree in Islamic Thought and Applied Ethics. His area of interest involves issues concerning religion, human development and ethics.