Image courtesy NBC News
“What is objectionable, what is dangerous about extremists is not that they are extreme, but that they are intolerant. The evil is not what they say about their cause, but what they say about their opponents.”- —Robert F. Kennedy
Africa these days has been battling with EBOLA, a severe, infectious, often fatal disease in humans and primates with no apparent cure in sight. Many have been dying while the desperate medical researchers are frantically searching for a cure, to stem this tide. In the UK, I have heard of another battle; botanists trying to stop the spread of an invasive killer which has been ‘eating’ the gardens and ruining lives. It is the deadly Japanese knotweed (Fallopia japonica) , which in winter dies back beneath ground but by early summer the bamboo-like stems shoot to over 2.1m (7ft), suppressing all other growth. Eradication requires steely determination as it is very hard to remove by hand or with chemicals.
The reason for mentioning about Ebola and the Japanese knotweed was to provide some context to describe the enormous challenge of crisis proportions, the present world has been facing, in order to destroy or stem another killer disease or weed.
The Scourge of Extremism
Many examples can be cited to show the depths of absurdity to which extremism can take a person or a movement to or blind them, witnessed in recent times. Three examples can be shown to prove this point.
Firstly (not in any order) , it is utterly shameful more than 2000 Gazans mostly civilians (compared to about 67 Israeli soldiers) have already lost their lives, when the Israeli forces decided to bombard Gaza disproportionately and indiscriminately, in response to so called Hamas shelling , under the pretext of self-defence. There were shameful clips of Israelis watching on TV their forces attacking Gaza settlement and cheering their killing spree. Israeli forces during the Gaza offensive on a captive population, appear to have followed the advice of Dov Lior, an Israeli Rabbi from the illegal settlement of Kiryat Arba in the occupied West Bank, who issued a ruling that allows the killing of innocent civilians in the besieged Gaza Strip, and authorized all means of targeting the people, such as “denying supplies or electricity.” He further said military forces are allowed “to bomb the whole area according to the discretion of the army…”. “In the case of Gaza,” the Rabbi said, the Israeli military officials “will be allowed to instruct even the destruction of Gaza.”
Secondly, what is being reported from Iraq should equally stir the conscience of all human beings. The despicable atrocities inflicted allegedly by the extremist ISIS in the name of Islam, on innocent Christians and Yazidis are totally unacceptable to say the least. It is unthinkable that massacre of people continues, solely for reasons of their religious adherence, and indiscriminate killings and the so- called choice imposed on Christians and Yazidis between conversion to Islam, payment of a tax (jizya) and exodus” and the forced expulsion of tens of thousands of people, including children, old people, pregnant women and the sick, can be condoned under any pretext. This is a clear distortion and also an unpardonable crime of using Islam for their own ulterior ends. Although some voices have condemned their actions, it is a matter of shame that the Mainstream Muslim leaders, as well as people engaged in inter-religious dialogue and all people of good have not spoken strongly enough against this dramatic situation, and taken a clear and courageous stance. It is their duty, not only to be unanimous and unambiguous in their condemnation of these crimes and denounce the invoking of religion to justify them, but also to stand up against them.
Thirdly, I was watching a TV Press documentary coverage of the Burmese massacre of Rohingyan Muslims, and shocked to see the extreme extent to which, even many young children and ordinary Burmese who were interviewed have been indoctrinated by extremist Buddhist monks. When asked, many of them told the journalists in no uncertain terms that they do not regret it and will themselves kill them, if an opportunity arises. In Sri Lanka too, the BBS extremist ‘Sinhala Buddhist’ philosophy has already succeeded in spreading hatred towards the ‘other’ among the younger generation , judging by what are being dished out in the social networking sites. What followed in Aluthgama in June, triggered by Gnanasara hate speech against Muslims, was just a demonstration of what the minorities could expect in a majoritarian Sri Lanka ‘belonging’ to Sinhala Buddhists, dreamt by the BBS. Further, their recent insensitive statements about the people of Gaza and wanting to demonstrate in support of Israel, were but further examples of their extremism and blind hatred of the BBS towards the Muslims in this instance.
This is where the phenomenon of extremism needs further elaboration and study. Extremism is a complex phenomenon, although its complexity is often hard to see. Most simply, it can be defined as activities (beliefs, attitudes, feelings, actions, strategies) of a character far removed from the ordinary. In conflict settings it manifests as a severe form of conflict engagement. However, the labelling of activities, people, and groups as “extremist”, and the defining of what is “ordinary” in any setting is always a subjective and political matter.
Extremism is symptomatic of marginalisation and isolation—dialogue would, at least, create contact with others. Extremism refers to the confiscation of human rights of which the right to life and the right to freedom are most fundamental. The idea is that there is no absolute falsehood in life. Yet, an extremist person sees himself as being exceptionally right and that everything other than his or her viewpoint is wrong. Such a strong belief drives a person to suppress the rights of other people. Had he tried to understand that there is no absolute falseness in life, he would have known that the other views might consist of a portion of reality that has to be appreciated.
The protection of human rights and human dignity worldwide presupposes that we all have a duty to oppose absolutely and without exception, all forms of extremism, racism, religious, xenophobia and anti-Semitism etc., irrespective of all divides- religious, racial, gender, geographical or others, for extremism eats into the core of humanity. We are all human beings first and others later. Ultimately, targeting extremism is about targeting ideas more than individuals. We should be significantly concerned, about the rise of extremism within this populated civilized world. This is our future as it defines whether humanity will have peace or a devastating conflict that will cost all of us tremendously. If there is any war, it should be a collective and universal war against extremism through education, knowledge and information.
It is however important to note that extremism and terrorism are not interchangeable; the former does not necessarily involve violent or criminal acts, as terrorism does, but focuses on radically changing society based on an absolutist vision. Today, terrorism and the extremist threat have been used to justify the limitation or suppression of human rights, which conversely breeds extremism and exacerbates the human dignity deficit.
David A. Lake says, in ‘Rational Extremism: Understanding Terrorism in the Twenty-first Century’ (Dialog-IO, Spring 2002, pp. 15-29 c 2002 by the IO Foundation and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology) : ‘The question of what we mean by the terms terrorist and extremist are traits that are often in the eyes of the beholder. Terrorism is the irregular use of violence by non-state groups against non-military targets and personnel for political ends. Almost by definition, since they often target civilians, terrorists lack moral strictures against the use of violence. Extremism is harder to define, but two attributes seem key. First, extremists hold political preferences that, in any distribution of opinion, lie in one of the “tails.” In other words, their political beliefs are not widely shared even within their own societies. Second, extremists currently lack the means or power to obtain their goals. Both traits are important in understanding their choice of strategy’.
There are many multi-faceted causes and drivers of extremism. Roya R. Rad, MA, PsyD , Professional psychologist ,in an article on ‘What Turns Ordinary People Into Religious Extremists?(2013) opines : There are many reasons behind why an average person may do something harmful to an innocent person while seeing it as a good deed. These reasons are multi-dimensional and to explain them in simple, tip-of-the iceberg terms will only add to the confusion, rather than bring meaningful understanding. But generally, a few of these reasons are the world’s lack of a moderate, moral and fair role model, in addition to a lack of access to proper education in many places, lack of basic resources for many people, too much repression, autocratic rulers, closed minded and egocentric leaders, personality factors, family upbringing, a tarnished sense of pride, among many others.
Generally, a particular use of information, and its reduction to a narrow narrative by Western and religious extremist leaders have contributed to polarised views. Further, a sense of humiliation—through perceived cultural domination; or specific demeaning acts regularly directed at members of a particular group— is considered a driver of extremism. A common view is that the perpetrators of terrorism are frequently religious fanatics targeting those with opposing beliefs… Although, there may be some evidence suggesting than more than half of internationally operating terrorist groups use religion to justify their actions, theoretical explanations usually champion the concept that terrorism stems from a deep frustrations resulting from economic and social deprivation combined with a dissatisfaction with a lack of opportunity for political change.
At the present juncture, Muslim extremism is what is talked about most, seeking to stigmatize all Muslims as extremists or possible terrorists. Religious extremism in recent times, is however not confined to Muslims alone. Seldom do we realize that extremism has been the bane of almost all religious groups, whether Christian, Jewish or even Buddhist/Hindu as well. Consider for example, Christian fundamentalism and extremism, based on misinterpretation of the Biblical description of the Armageddon and the Apocalypse, which appears to have infiltrated into the highest echelons of the US and government and has at its disposal the formidable power of the American military. In 2009, extremist Zionist groups of Jewish rabbis followed the Israeli military when they moved into Gaza and indoctrinated them into believing that it is their religious duty to kill. We have the case of the spread of hatred against the ‘other’ in India by RSS and Vishva Parishad or Burmese and Sri Lankan Buddhist monks in their ‘crusade’ against the Muslims.
In every religion, therefore there will be groups that reduce faith to ideology to advance their own political agendas. Fundamentalist interpretations of religion can attract an increasing number of followers as they appear to be void of political interests and serve the whole community. Either through charisma, violence, chicanery, or otherwise, they hijack religion as a means of mobilising the masses. The irony is that religion taken to extremes is more likely the cause of violent conflict than a solution to it. More predictable is the fact that people exploit other people to advance selfish interests under the guise of religion. While religion has unarguably inspired the extremism and atrocities in recent times, ultimately many factors cause actions, as complex as genocide and war. Religion does not always inspire atrocities, and what we may call religious atrocities are sometimes caused by more than just religion. To lay all the blame for human violence at the feet of religion is ultimately an answer that is too simplistic and does not consider all the facts.
Given this history of violence, one must sadly conclude that violence is an endemic condition in humans, and even without religious motivation humans would find many justifications to hurt each-other. Certainly, some massive atrocities were not done entirely at the urging of religious leaders and scriptures. While the pogroms and discrimination against European Jews were caused by religious differences throughout most of history, the Nazis murdered those they considered ethnic Jews even if these people had converted to Christianity. And in the case of the Rwandan genocide, while some religious leaders helped lead the murder of ethnic Tutsis, others sheltered Tutsis and the genocide itself was undeniably inspired by ethnic differences that had nothing to do with religion.
Given its’ complexities, the sources, causes and reflections of extremism as well as the resultant violent behaviour and even, terrorism, we need a world of commitment and unified action .among ourselves, to fight this menace effectively, before it causes more destruction and damage.
It needs to be stressed that extremism and fanaticism should be banished from the mind-set of their followers of different faiths. The Very Reverend Kishkovsky, Vice Moderator of the World Conference on Religions for Peace (WCRP) opined how accepting the identity of ‘the other’ strengthens the identity of oneself. He argued that common religious values concerning humanity should be conveyed into public language, to promote understanding and acceptance of shared security. It is imperative that multi-religious cooperation for finding shared common values would help build understanding and cooperation. Shared values, in turn, could lead to shared security. Religion can suggest that it is critically important to recognise the humanity of ‘the other’ in order to affirm one’s own humanity. It would be useful to explore the possibilities of interfaith cooperation to develop recognition of ‘the other’, from the level of acceptance to the level of social integration, and it would also be useful to link interfaith dialogue with political dialogue.
In an article by Fr. Dr. George Pulikkottil, he aptly summarizes the ineffective role played by the religious leadership in grappling with the issues of the day-violence, insecurity, poverty, inequality and exploitation among others. He says, ‘We realize that far too often the names of our various religions have been used in warfare and community strife, and that we must work harder against this. We cannot deny the facts and have to confess that (1) the practices of our religious communities are often a divisive force in the world and (2) too often we conform to the powers of the world, even when they do wrong, rather than confronting those powers with the Word of the Teachings of our religions.
Some scholars and policy-makers argue that an absence of participatory democracy and a legitimate arena to channel discontent contributes to extremism. It is usually presumed that there is fertile ground for extremist thinking and terrorist actions when the political system is undemocratic, prevents change, prohibits criticism in the mass media and violates basic human rights, such as the freedom of speech and assembly However, others have found no causal connection between authoritarianism and extremism. A common finding in the literature is that while consolidated democracies are less prone to extremism and terrorism; countries that are in the process of transitioning to democratic norms or where such norms are being imposed on them, are more susceptible to extremism than societies that remain authoritarian. Examples can be seen in the ME before and after the Arab Spring.
Grievances, real or fantasized, are also commonly recognised as causes of extremism. If one were to specifically analyse Muslim extremism in the present context, it appear to revolve around grievances primarily over Western foreign policy and ongoing conflicts in Muslim lands. As an example, although the means may not always justify the ends, the post- WW2 Israeli Palestinian conflict supported by US and Western favouritism towards the aggressors, and the recent Iraq/Afghanistan invasion by Western forces have been rightly or wrongly giving the rationale and the logic for various ideological groups and interest groups in Muslim countries, for launching intifadas and campaigns, struggles and engage in violent attacks, to fight Zionist, imperialist and colonial designs. BBS and Tigers too attempts/attempted to win over the loyalty of their communities by cashing in, on the grievances faced by their races, by blaming the ‘other’. Therefore, it is important to take a holistic view of the causes or drivers of extremism in a particular context, before finding solutions.
There is also divergence of opinion over the role of economic conditions. While absolute poverty is not considered by most as a key driver of extremism, it is considered an enabling factor. The more important driver is relative deprivation—disparities among groups and regions regarding economic prosperity, service delivery, educational and employment opportunities and infrastructure. Broadly speaking, economic and political unresolved grievances and social conflicts remain the root cause.
In the long term, in order to uproot the causes of extremism and terrorism, we need a policy that promotes and implements democracy, human rights and the rule of law as its pivotal elements. Human rights are no luxury that can be neglected once we are faced with so called operative issues like fight against terror. Quite the contrary is true: fostering of human rights, rule of law and good governance is the most reliable basis for stability and peace over time. This is a lesson we have learned in the Cold War. Today, this lesson acquires a new and global dimension again.
As Louise Arbour, former High Commissioner for Human Rights (27 August 2004) said, “I firmly believe that terrorism must be confronted in a manner that respects human rights law. Insisting on a human rights-based approach and a rule of law approach to countering terrorism is imperative . . . Over the long term, a commitment to uphold respect for human rights and the rule of law will be one of the keys to success in countering terrorism—not an impediment blocking our way”
The ever growing cycle of revenge must also be broken and replaced by fair and effective judicial processes. Efforts should also be taken to broaden and improve participation in democratic governance at the national level. The war on terror must adhere to international humanitarian and human rights law. This is the only way to demonstrate that there is an alternative to dealing with problems and conflicts. Those deemed to slip into extremism or radicalism urgently need to be engaged in dialogue.
While it is important to support and empower mainstream moderate voices who offer other visions for society, other than ‘the usual American or the Western brand’, it is also equally essential that moderates speak up against those espousing radical extremist views trying to hijack public discourse. The American or the Western brands have already lost their credibility by hypocritically holding the human rights card against other countries while they flout its’ norms unashamedly when their own interests come to play. Bystanders and societies collectively should speak up as this is a common cancer to fight against. As a Muslim, I find the Quran telling me: “We made you to be a community of the middle way, so that (with the example of your lives) you might bear witness to the truth before all mankind.” (Qur’an, 2:143). It is also exhorting me to be just even against ourselves ‘‘O ye who believe! Be ye staunch in justice, witnesses for Allah, even though it be against yourselves or (your) parents or (your) kindred, whether (the case be of) a rich man or a poor man, for Allah is nearer unto both (them ye are). .’(4:135). Therefore, my faith never allows me to condone extremism at any cost nor it permits to be selective in condemning extremism. Prophet of Islam (S) advised: ‘If you see an evil, stop it with your hands; if not possible, with your tongue; if not, then desist with your heart. It is the weakest level of faith’ which is the essence of Jihad (to struggle against evil) not violence which what it is today being portrayed as. So are other faiths warning their followers on the dangers of extremism and to stand up against it?
If people were exposed to the realities and the consequences of extremism and the underlying deceit which it embodies, then the extremists’ power over the people would be greatly diminished. Extremism flourishes in environments where reality is oversimplified into a vapid, monochromatic, black-and-white view of the world. “Either you’re with us, or you’re against us” can go both ways. One way to mitigate the influence of extremist ideology is by broadening the worldview of those most susceptible to its grip. If politicians try to make use of extremist groups to achieve their ends, they should realize that they are holding the tiger’s tail, which will ultimately spell disaster for them as well.
Some of the ways to go against extremism are to increase our own knowledge and to speak our truth against them. For example, if we are in a gathering, organization, institution or in any setting that preaches an extremist view that encourages hate, divides us, creates tension and conflict based on beliefs and caters anger and frustration based on subjective feelings about how things “should” be rather than an objective and rational share of information, then maybe it’s a good time to speak up. We should not expose our children to situations that create such invalid internal feelings toward a group of people and encourage them to increase their awareness by exploration and information. In addition, we must encourage them to understand the beauty of unity in diversity and to listen to others’ point of view while also teaching them the need to preserve their culture and identity.
Thus, whether BBS extremism in Sri Lanka spreading hate against the ‘other’ or ISIS in Iraq in driving out and killing Christians or the Zionist extremism torturing a captive population -Gazans, they are equally detestable. If the world fails to call a spade a spade and do not call people to arms to fight this menace collectively without religious or racial differences, then the days are not far off when it will kill our civilized norms and spell the end of our modern civilization like Ebola or ruin our lives like the Japanese Knotweed.