Religious Fanaticism: When Belief Becomes Perverse


Religious fanaticism is perverse, a sinister mutation from, already unhealthy, religious fundamentalism.

Right now the cutthroat Islamic State is foremost in the news. A few centuries ago, Christian fanaticism in the Crusades would have made the headlines and evening news. They were equally brutal, barbaric, and certainly not very Jesus-like as they raped and killed Muslims and Jews to rescue the Holy Land from the “infidels.”

In the “Peoples Crusade” an army of around 10,000 men, women and children set off in the early summer of 1096 for the Rhine valley. The fired-up crusaders massacred thousands of Jews in the German cities of Speyer, Worms, Mainz, and Cologne, all in God’s holy cause. When the crusaders captured Jerusalem in 1099, they killed Muslims, Jews, and even native Christians who threatened their control of the Holy Places. Another rage of Christian fanaticism came a few centuries later with the Spanish Inquisition.

After Osama bin Laden’s fatwa in 1998, the world started looking at Muslim fundamentalism and radical “jihad.” Bin Laden’s fundamentalist concept, however, was far different from the actual meaning of the term. (Fundamentalists in all religions adapt — and even fabricate — parts of their traditions to fit their immediate goals and ideologies.) Within an authentic understanding of Islam, “jihad” means struggling for a certain and generally positive spiritual objective. In the Qur’an “jihad” does not endorse acts of military aggression.

I often remind people, in my lectures about fundamentalism (and I have another big one in November), that Muslims once led the world in science, mathematics, literature, and philosophy. Most of my listeners, however, remain incredulous, because the media have done a good job of programming people to see Islam as sinister and destructive; and of course because Muslim fundamentalists and fanatics have excelled in terrorism and violence, tarnishing the image of Islam, and making Muslims, in general, despicable in the eyes of other communities.

Yes… I think one can really say that the biggest threat to peace and security facing the world today is the rise of religious fanaticism and extremism among some people who claim to be Muslims. To be sure, fanaticism is not confined to Muslims alone, but is found to exist in other religious groups, too. But what we are currently finding among Muslims looks much worse in magnitude.

So what should we do? What can we do? We can bomb and kill the fanatics. History, however, is quite clear that killing fanatics guarantees a new group of fanatics and turns the fanatic-killers into fanatics as well; and every bomb on a fanatic fundamentalist stronghold is a boomerang.

On August 27th, fifty-three Catholic and Protestant leaders sent a letter to President Barack Obama, to halt American airstrikes and pursue peaceful means to resolve the conflict. (See: http://ncronline.org/news/peace-justice/religious-leaders-encourage-obama-move-beyond-war-iraq-syria ) They suggest an eight-point program:

(1) Stop U.S. bombing in Iraq to prevent bloodshed, instability and the accumulation of grievances that contribute to the global justification for the Islamic State’s existence among its supporters.

(2) Provide robust humanitarian assistance to those who are fleeing the violence. Provide food and much needed supplies in coordination with the United Nations.

(3) Engage with the UN, all Iraqi political and religious leaders, and others in the international community on diplomatic efforts for a lasting political solution for Iraq; and work for a political settlement to the crisis in Syria.

(4) Support community-based nonviolent resistance strategies to transform the conflict and meet the deeper need and grievances of all parties.

(5) Strengthen financial sanctions against armed actors in the region by working through the UN Security Council. For example, disrupting the Islamic State’s $3 million/day oil revenue from the underground market would go a long way toward blunting violence.

(6) Bring in and significantly invest in professionally trained unarmed civilian protection organizations to assist and offer some buffer for displaced persons and refugees, both for this conflict in collaboration with Iraqi’s and for future conflicts.

(7) Call for and uphold an arms embargo on all parties to the conflict. U.S. arms and military assistance to the government forces and ethnic militias in Iraq, in addition to arming Syrian rebel groups, have only fueled the carnage, in part due to weapons intended for one group being taken and used by others.

(8) Support Iraqi civil society efforts to build peace, reconciliation, and accountability at the community level.

I would add that we all – Christians and Muslims and Jews — need to engage in local and broad-based educational programs that: (a) inform about authentic religious beliefs and traditions in all three Abrahamic religions; and (b) inform parishes, Mosque, and synagogue communities about the nature of religious fundamentalism and how to defuse it by practicing healthy religion.

Inter-religious dialogue is not just a polite and appropriate exercise. It is essential for our global life and security.

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10 thoughts on “Religious Fanaticism: When Belief Becomes Perverse

  1. First, let me say how much I admire the religious leaders who wrote Obama with actual proposals for alternatives to military intervention. I am well aware that these have been effective in other situations – mostly on a smaller, localized disturbance or with different aggressors. However, I have my doubts because the current situation in the MidEast is so volatile. From today’s news: BEIRUT — Clashes erupted between al-Qaida-linked Syrian rebels and U.N. peacekeepers in the Golan Heights on Saturday after the militants surrounded their encampment, said activists and officials, as the international organization risked being sucked further into the conflict. Other U.N. peacekeepers were able to flee from a different encampment that that was also surrounded by rebels of the Nusra Front, al-Qaida’s Syrian affiliate, said Rami Abdurrahman of the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. The Philippines’ Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin confirmed that peacekeepers from his country were “extricated.” Yesterday ISIS slaughtered 120 men stripped to their underpants and forced to kneel. They were shot to death from the rear. Second, you wrote: “I think one can really say that the biggest threat to peace and security facing the world today is the rise of religious fanaticism and extremism among some people who claim to be Muslims.” The largest Islamic nation numerically is Indonesia and since every religion has its fundamentalists, we would have to note that Muslims in every corner of the globe are not at war, only in the MidEast. Also, in that area, the vast majority of victims are Muslims. So what we have are Muslims killing Muslim. Sunni and Shite, Arab, Persians and Palestinians further divided into national interests also. Rather than looking to religion as a source of fundamentalism, I prefer Lakoff’s explanation: In his 2004 analysis, Don’t Think of an Elephant!, George Lakoff contrasts the mental models of the conservative and progressive mindsets. SeeLakoff clip. The former, he denominates the “strict father.” This worldview is premised on the presumption that the world is a dangerous place. There always has been and forever will be evil in the world. This is a world in which there are winners and losers. There is absolute right and absolute wrong. Children are born to do what feels good, not what is right. Therefore they have to be made “good.” This is the world in which a strict father protects and supports the family, while teaching his children right from wrong. Children must be obedient to the moral authority of the father. Punishment sometimes is necessary to secure such obedience. Punishment teaches internal discipline. Moreover, it is what is necessary for survival and success in a difficult, competitive world. Lakoff ‘s strict father model links morality with prosperity. The same discipline that makes you moral, allows you to prosper. Self interest is a moral quality. As each pursues his/her individual self-interest , the interest of all is maximized. To be a “good person,” you have to be obedient, to learn what is right, do what is right and pursue your self interest, prosper and become self-reliant. Some, however, do not pursue this path. These are the “do-gooders.” A do-gooder tries to help someone else rather than him/herself and impedes those who are pursuing their own self interests. According to Lakoff, in the Strict Father model, “Do-gooders screw up the system.” Lakoff contrasts the Strict Father worldview, in which the father is the strict authoritarian, with the progressive Nurturant Parent worldview, which is gender-neutral. Here both parents are equally responsible for child rearing. It assumes that children are born good and can only be made better. The parents’ role is to nurture their own children so that they will become nurturers of others, making the world better place. Nurturing is premised on empathy and responsibility. It incorporates the notion that you cannot nurture someone else if you do not care for yourself. You have to be strong, to work hard and to develop your competencies. Empathy and responsibility, in the Nurturant Parent model, include the notion of protection — at both an individual and systems level. If you cannot individually protect your child, say for example, from smoking, it is altogether appropriate to seek government intervention to do so. Another feature of the Nurturant Parent model is enabling your children to become fulfilled and happy. To do so, it is your responsibility to become fulfilled and happy yourself. Other nurturant values include freedom, opportunity, fairness, honesty and transparency, as well as cooperation and community building. Lakoff goes on to distinguish various types of conservatives and progressives. But he maintains, at bottom, each adheres, in the political domain, to their respective model. http://coachingcounsel.com/awareness/lakoffs-strict-father-v-nurturant-parent/ I’ll give you a personal example. My landlord does not go to church and told me he has no religion. He is a policeman and told me that he was looking forward to killing some Muslims when they attack the Georgia Military Academy located in Milledgeville, GA. Fox News told him this was being planned. Betty

    • Thanks betty for reflection. I guess I would argue for the nurturant parent model for all of our interpersonal relations; and I still see the problem as one of fanaticism, which I don’t believe one can control today through military intervention.

      Jack ____________________________________________

      John Alonzo Dick, PhD, STD Leuven / Louvain

      “Those who were seen dancing were thought to be insane by those who could not hear the music.” — Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche

      >

  2. Whilst I agree with much of what you say today Jack, I would like to to offer a couple of points for consideration.

    Yes, Christianity has been a cruel and violent force in the world in centuries past. Much of this was down to those in power and control of religion imposing its force and might upon those lesser souls who tried to accept the message of love and wisdom from Jesus of Nazareth.Humanity then was in a less evolved state of consciousness. Today, most people, Christian or following their own individual path to knowledge of God, whatever they conceive that t be,are more tolerant. They had an example held up to them in the form of Jesus, even if their organisational leaders who were supposed to support that example, did not and still does not, emulate that example.

    In my view, religion does not directly come into this kind of bullying behavior – whoever does it. It is a hook upon which to hang the lust for power which really lies behind it.

    Having lived in Jeddah Saudi Arabia for 2 yrs- a stones throw from Mecca- I saw first hand the way religion translates at the heart of Islam. It is not pretty,it is not loving. it knows nothing of forgiveness.It is brutal, judgmental, and without any concept of mercy. It holds the kind of view of God which you referred to in your last post. God is seen as an authoritarian punishing entity.As you said then Jack, it says much about who we are when we reveal pour view of God.

    No-one really wants to retaliate with like behavior and foster more hatred and resentment but what about BOTH sides taking their share of the responsibility for the situation? How on earth are people here, in the western Christian world supposed to protect themselves from the effects of being terrorised in a deliberate attempt to dominate them? This is the 21st century now. Humanity should have grown and moved on. This is not the middle ages.

    Meanwhile, much of the western/Christian world have welcomed Muslims into their countries, affording them all the freedoms and benefits ( including protection) of their cultures. Such is not offered in places such as Saudi Arabia. What are American and British citizens, for example, supposed to do, when these same people turn around and bite the hand that has so generously fed them, showing nothing but contempt and hatred in return?

    To turn the other cheek is one thing but it feels at times like you run out of cheeks to turn. We have been feeding and protecting and providing humanitarian relief to all comers for a very long time indeed.. Some thanks the generous Americans have got for it and indeed Christian peoples everywhere. What is it going to take before we all stop paying for a past we did not participate in?

    Best Wishes

    Mari

    • Very good and thoughtful observations, like those of another friend Betty…..

      This will not be easily resolved and I am not optimistic about the immediate future. Nevertheless, I very sincerely think we have no other realistic options than rejecting the military option. It will take tome…..easily said for an old man…..just like the repercussions of climate change, etc.

      I greatly value your comments….and those of Betty as well but I neglected to say that….

      Jack ____________________________________________

      John Alonzo Dick, PhD, STD Leuven / Louvain

      “Those who were seen dancing were thought to be insane by those who could not hear the music.” — Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche

      >

      • I sincerely hope our Muslim brothers will give us that time Jack before they decide to hack off all non ISIL heads and display them on sticks.

        While theoretically we do not want to kill others, I dread to think where we would all be now if the Third Reich had not been stopped in its tracks when it was. Unfortunately we do not live in an ideal world and we have our own freedom to protect. among other considerations. We will just try to pray that sanity will prevail, even in the darkest hours.

        Mari

      • Yes people often raise, to me especially, the question of the Third Reich….At the time I was a happy little boy in Michigan but my father-in -law was put In a Nazi concentrate damp when German soldiers broke into his house, put a bayonet at his daughter’s throat (my wife) and said you go with us or we kill the kid,

        Nevertheless we live today and have to think about appropriate responses today…..

        Jack ____________________________________________

        John Alonzo Dick, PhD, STD Leuven / Louvain

        “Those who were seen dancing were thought to be insane by those who could not hear the music.” — Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche

        >

  3. “Nevertheless we live today and have to think about appropriate responses today…..”

    Jack, absolutely true. I am reading/discussing some in depth (high and senior level) analyses/insights into US policy/mantra re ISIS, AQ, etc. There seem to be disturbing parallels with some things going on in the Roman Church.

    Good to be retired, both from the diocese and from the international scene. Just wondering what my responsibilities to both are these days. Trying to prep homily for this coming weekend. I keep coming back to wherever two or three, etc. I feel that I will spark controversy. Fortunately my schedule this wkend is light.

    • Dear Jim It is not an easy situation for sure….I am convinced it is a very serious situation and that it has great implications for all of us. Islam per se is not a sinister religion….although my ultra right friends strongly disagree with me. Religious fanatics indeed are a great danger….We are indeed in a tremendous shift in the socio-cultural-religious galactic plates. I wonder if wise men in Washington, Bagdad, as well as Rome really understand this…..

      Jack ____________________________________________

      John Alonzo Dick, PhD, STD Leuven / Louvain

      “Those who were seen dancing were thought to be insane by those who could not hear the music.” — Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche

      >

    • Actually I don’t think so. Perhaps your understanding is a bit out of sync with historic realities. My primary source on the crusades is in fact the very book you recommend…… I am old but not antiquated.

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