It is the 21st Century. We live in an age of reason and science. It is an era of progress governed by rational thought, altruism, tolerance and love of humanity. Ignorance, superstition and prejudice have been stamped out by the triumph of the intellect. The vast knowledge and learning of the collective human mind – disseminated and readily available as in no other juncture in history through the miracle of an unceasing technological revolution – have ended our insularity, excised our irrational phobias and visceral hatreds. Our fear of multiculturalism is no more. Globalization has made us all brethren of a transnational fabric, one single human tribe of many colors, many voices where our celebration of diversity is the very source of our unity. Our sectarian and racial divisions have been overcome and our common humanity embraced. Religious Puritanism and intolerance are in the ash can of the past. Now we may all worship as we wish, in peace, regardless of our spiritual choices, whether we are atheists, pagans, agnostics or true believers. The inexorable logic, wisdom and justice of secularism that anchors our societal value systems and governance ensures this equilibrium, harmony and peace….
How’s the Kool Aid? Smoked just a little too much opium have we? One too many hallucinogens more than the Shaman ordered? Didn’t realize it was THOSE kinds of mushrooms in your Balinese omelet? Well, it might do for a vintage episode of Star Trek as the credo of some supremely advanced alien civilization deep in the far reaches of the universe; a land populated by vegetarian beings with large bulbous heads so crammed with grey matter that speech is no longer necessary, where all communication is telepathic, and orgasmic sexual congress is achieved between the giant orb beings through atonal humming. But that sure isn’t Planet Earth of any era, much less of today.
It has been a rather long time since the Spanish Inquisition, but Torquemada and all of his many descendants across the spectrum of organized religion (or perhaps better its most pernicious offshoots and distortions) have not gone away, nor have their propensity for violence, and a world view that makes the Grand Inquisitor look like a hippy liberal. The insanity and idiocy of religious faith become perverted zealotry, become extremism, seething hate, murder (or at least the fervent hope of murder) of the unbeliever, the infidel, the apostate, the faith traitor is an equal opportunity, ecumenical, multicultural infirmity of the mind and soul right across the globe of our fuzzy, warm, cuddly, accepting, human civilization.
You needn’t go any further than the headlines to spy copious evidence of this enduring blight on purported civilization that consistently gives the lie to the universal tenets anchoring all faiths: that is is to say to do good, to do no evil, to do unto others as you would wish upon yourself, to love thy neighbor. Respect, peace, and love. Love. Love of humanity. Most radical idea.
At a quick glance, as this issue of Dante went to press, a broad array of toxic, faith-based tragic farces revealed themselves on the news wires. Buddhists in Burma kill minority Muslims and burn them out of their homes. Indian Hindus attack mourners at a Christian funeral. A Lithuanian Archbishop says mass for a quisling, wartime, puppet leader who enabled the Holocaust and praises him as a man of God. Jewish extremists paint graffiti on a church in Jerusalem with the legend “death to Christians.” A Muslim suicide bomber detonates his vest in a Nigerian Church. A Tunisian Salafi vandalizes a modernist art exhibit for its “degenerate” art. How very Hitlerian and Stalinist both. And this was just a fast overview. Let us go back a few months and we can wade into the primordial sludge of many more episodes like them. If one really has an appetite for extremist, religious hysteria calling for apocalyptic struggles between the righteous forces of light and the emissaries of Satan, just surf the net a while and you will find all the would be crusades, jihads and pogroms you would ever wish to consider.
Judged empirically, religious faith is an irrational impulse, even at its most beneficent, because it is credence and adherence to a phenomenon that cannot be scientifically quantified or demonstrated. Of course if religious or mystical spiritual faith is felt, known in the soul of the practitioner, it is beyond all logical explanation. It can neither be denied nor condemned when it is peacefully expressed. It is, after all, a matter of the spirit. But by its sheer irrationality, when the proponents of any sect or tradition (and terrorists and extremists have been spawned by virtually all dominant faiths) judge themselves the keepers of a singular truth above all others, with careful manipulation, ecstatic religious bliss can readily transform into messianic rampage. And quite clearly it still does or hopes to, across the planet, from the deepest strongholds of the Bible belt in the Southern United States, to the Baltic, Scandinavia, the Balkans, the Maghreb, the Hindu Kush and Southeast Asia. Andres Breivik or Mullah Omar – they’re really not so different from one another. Give them pointy hats and ghostly capes and they can be the Klu Klux Klan. Swap the bed sheets for Yarmulke and they could be Gush Emunim. Throw in some different turbans or skullcaps, change the weaponry, change the scenery, diversify their victims, get the holy man to whip the mob up into a frenzy and crimes against humanity in the name of the creator are as easy as crying, “Heretic!”
How we might rid the world of religious extremism is as perplexing a conundrum to consider as how we might rid the world of any of its extremist leanings, including secularist, political, cultural or racist ideologies that become extremist just as readily as religion turns to fanaticism. To attempt to eradicate extremism effectively without by default adopting extremism as the counter measure is as mystifying. And far too many of our inherent freedoms, where we are lucky enough to have them and live in ostensibly democratic societies, are already being curtailed in far too excessive and draconian a manner, in the name of upholding freedom. We are destroying the village in order to save it all the time. Since 9/11, the United States and the United Kingdom are just two examples of longstanding Western democracies – indeed two of the founding ones – that have so curtailed civil rights, human rights, freedom of expression and the legitimate democratic right to dissent in the name of national security that they have become almost unrecognizable in their constitutional foundations. So we must continue to reject the quiet evolution of the police state dressed in the trappings of democracy, as much as we must condemn and abhor those who transform the rapture of their faith into hatred and bloodshed. We must resist both, but we must keep our cultural hubris in check. When we trumpet our moral superiority over others, when we create a false Manichean truth and re-write historical memory, like the same zealots we decry, we forget that when we speak of “us’ and “them” we are actually staring into a mirror. The propensity for extremism of all forms is our common, dark inheritance. There is only us.