Saturday, July 23, 2011

Extremism - doing God's work?

As the story trickles in, the mass murderer in Norway apparently is a right-wing, christian fundamentalist extremist. It's ironic that this comes soon after my friend R.J. Evans posted here about the distinction between being a militant and being an extremist. Of course, my christian friends and followers of this blog will complain that not all christians are extremists. This is quite true, just as it's true that not all muslims are extremists. I suppose not all nazis or soviet communists were extremists, either - some were forced to join when those extremist political regimes took over whole nations.

Nevertheless, when barbaric acts occur, such as the murders committed by this home-grown Norwegian terrorist or any of his terrorist brethren on behalf of any cause, you can be sure that some form of extremism is behind it. The demagogues who spew forth the hatred and incitement to violence that motivate these terrorists are usually quick to say "I didn't order him to do that!" These "leaders" frequently back-pedal away from accepting any responsibility for the deeds committed by what are probably insane people that happen to believe in the demagogue's cause. Some of these leaders say that we deserved the violence we got, of course. They believe they are carrying out acts of justifiable violence on us, no matter how innocent of wrongdoing the victims might be!

Religion and politics are commonly associated with extremism because the extremists among the religious or political followers take their cause so very seriously. When "holy scriptures" (of any sort) enjoin followers to slay unbelievers and sinners, the extremists are the ones who accept this as a literal commandment to action. They see it as doing "god's work". The moderates amongst the believers deny that these people are "true believers," preferring to presume that their more peaceful interpretation of those scriptures is the correct one - that those scriptures shouldn't be taken literally word-for-word. This is, of course, a convenient way to rationalize the contradictions within those documents, and to avoid the need to take certain actions despite the clear commands within the literal words of these scriptures that, after all, form the foundation for those belief systems.

Radical political groups grow out of the frustration over the inability of moderates to accomplish certain political ends. Barry Goldwater once said "I would remind you that extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice!" I disagree with him. The end never justifies the means!!

Political extremists want political action without having to wait for a consensus in the electorate, and without regard to the possibility of harmful consequences created by that action. In the U.S., where two-party dominance has deeply polarized the electorate, various extremist positions are being encouraged by the rhetoric of the parties. Some of the followers, notably these days on the right wing (but historically also on the left wing), are ready to commit acts of violence. All they await is their moment of rage-triggered insanity. We have seen this already here in the U.S., in the case of the Oklahoma City bombing of 1995. The right-wing extremists capable of such violence are still out there - like the Norwegian mass murderer, so consumed by anger and hatred that murder and destruction seem to them to be the only acceptable alternative. In the U.S. of today, left-wing extremists may exist, but are pretty impotent and generally quiet. These days, it seems that to be a liberal is to be a left-wing extremist! That sort of polarizing rhetoric is exactly what concerns me.

We only need to look to the islamic theocracies of the Middle East today to see what happens to "moderates" when extremists (be they religious or political) manage to take control: moderates are given the simple choice of "With us? Or against us?" They either go along or suffer the consequences. This is a familiar pattern in history, borrowed by the muslim extremists (and others) from the ruthless ideology-based dictatorships of the past. I don't need to enumerate the violent, extremist examples from the past. We all know them by heart, but ... have we truly learned the lessons that such extremism has inflicted on us all? Will we recognize it for what it is and not allow it to carry the day? Apparently not everyone has learned those lessons, so the boundary between being a militant for some cause and being an extremist is being crossed, and potential terrorists emerge, ready to commit violent acts when the situation arises. No matter how crazy some fringe group of fanatics may seem to be, the lesson of history is clear: ignore them at your peril!

Tribalism is an evolutionary strategy for the success of tribes. We all carry that instinct for tribalism in our genes. Religion and politics tap into that tribalism to benefit their cause - to seek power and control over their members. The members who commit violent acts to further their causes are being manipulated by leaders who stand to gain power from this sort of terrorism. The best way to avoid becoming ensnared in this is to think for oneself and not let mere rhetoric sway your thinking toward extremism. The Mahatma Ghandis and Martin Luther Kings of history have shown that violence is not the only alternative in the face of perceived injustice and persecution. Peaceful change is possible. But it's up to us to decide the path to follow in order to produce change. Militant or extremist? Which do you choose to be?

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