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Commentary: Islamic fanaticism is repulsive - and so is European fanaticism

Prague, 15.10.2014 19:47, (ROMEA)
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We are horrified by the blind violence of al-Qaeda, the Taliban, and most recently by the so-called Islamic State. We are right to be horrified, as their merciless recklessness combined with fanaticism and the conviction that they own the one and only truth is repulsive, and we are all dealing with this - discussing it, theorizing about it and writing about it.

A wave of fanaticism

The trend of intolerance, primitivity and violence traveling around Europe through the non-Islamic "owners of the one and only truth" is also mentioned by some from time to time, but overall we do not consider it very dangerous. European fanaticism, for the time being, is not as reckless, commits acts of terrorism only exceptionally, isn't murdering or torturing others because of their different world view to any large extent, isn't broadcasting its public executions of the "enemy" online... for now.

Breivik, however, did not act in isolation from what was going on around him. His terrorist assassinations were not an isolated crime, but a direct component of a wave of fanaticism that is rising around the globe.

In the Muslim world, hatred of non-believers (including other Muslims) is growing, and in Europe hatred is rising against migrants, Romani people, Jewish people, etc. Proposals for violent solutions to problems are beginning to surface here and more and more people are identifying with them.

The tolerant Muslim world

Islamic fanaticism linked to violence arrived at its inhumanity and recklessness gradually, little step by little step. Muslims, too, had their Breivik in the beginning, those whose deeds were condemned (with rare exceptions) by everyone else - many Muslims condemn terrorism today as well, but with the surge in fanaticism, their numbers have fallen compared to the beginning.  

Several decades ago (and long before that) the Muslim world was not fanatical and was tolerant of minorities, sometimes more tolerant than the pre-Renaissance Christian world ever was. For example, millions of Jews lived among the Muslims in that world.

During the first half of the 20th century, according to some estimates, there were as many as 200 000 Jews in Iraq. Some of the Muslims there did not begin to declaim against the Jews until the 1930s, in tandem with the rise of Nazism in Europe.

This knowledge is important to the evaluation of today's trends, because it shows that fanaticism knows how to cross from civilization to civilization, from continent to continent, and from religion to religion - it's all the same to fundamentalism what it feeds on. It is so strong that it can strike the whole world at once, which 20th-century Europe witnessed when it whipped up the horrors of two World Wars.  

For their part, the Christians sometimes expelled and murdered the Jews in droves - for example in 15th-century Spain, or during the pogroms in Galicia, Russia, and elsewhere in Central and Eastern Europe. With the rise of the nation-states, Christian anti-Semitism was replaced by nationalist anti-Semitism.

Where does fanaticism begin?

Fanaticism begins where reason, as a means of acquiring knowledge, is replaced by a fundamentalist conception of faith or ideology. The social atmosphere and behavior of people gradually transforms itself, first, understandably, on a small scale - at the local level - and later can expand beyond that.

To paraphrase Henri Bergson, the tools of our mind become a burden once the environment to which they are essential no longer exists. This transformation introduces a different way of thinking and the previous scale of values is transformed - in this case, radically.  

What might feed today's European fundamentalism so that it proficiently ripens into a fanaticism that uses violence to promote itself? The food will most probably be quite varied, but we have three main dishes right before our eyes:  

  • Nationalism, or rather, sentiments leading to intolerance of those who are different and "other"
  • Moral relativism that erases the borders between right and wrong 
  • Thinking that is marked by ideology, or rather, the ascendancy of ideology over reason, which has gotten well under the skin of our civilizational circle

Here I have in mind any ideology whatsoever, including democratic ones. Even those ideologies cripple our thinking with their primitive, simplified views of complex events.

Breivik and his followers

Breivik, in his extensive manifesto, confirms all three of these points with these words (among others):  "Because we want to break through into the Marxist media promoting multiculturalism, we are forced to commit breathtaking, more brutal operations that will result in victims. Once you decide to strike, it is better to kill as many people as you can, otherwise there is the risk that the ideological impact of your deed will not be sufficient... Most people condemn us now as terrorists. However, in 100 years we will be celebrated as the vanguard, as the heroes who gave their lives in the fight against the tyrants."  

Of course, Breivik's intention to lay down his own life abated immediately after police officers arrived at the scene where he had deliberately murdered the young people whom he had chosen to view as the enemy. He was willing to expend other people's lives for "his truth", but not his own... yet.  

The next Breiviks will be more determined in that respect. Their deeds will be even more cruel.

Hatred and life as values

The Israeli author Amos Oz, in his 2006 essay "How To Cure a Fanatic", describes the ancient conflict between fanaticism on the one hand and pluralism, pragmatism and tolerance on the other in relation to current events in the world as follows: "What we are witnessing is of course a struggle between fanatics, which means people who are convinced that the ends - any ends - justify the means, and the rest of the world, which believes that life is a value in and of itself, not just a mere means. It is a struggle between those who believe that justice, whatever they mean by that word, takes precedence over life, and those of us who believe that life is higher than any other convictions, religions or values."

Of course, we can see that the part of the world professing life as the highest value is rapidly shrinking. During the first half of the 20th century the rise of Fascism and Nazism influenced the Muslim world, while today Europeans are drawing on the Islamists for their hatred.  

Their numbers are rising. Hatred resulting from fanaticism is becoming, for a rising number of people, a higher value than human life.

Let's ask ourselves questions right now

We should probably also begin to ask ourselves certain questions, questions for which we already know in advance that the answers will present themselves once the content of those questions starts to be fulfilled in reality. We should do this now so we have the opportunity to reflect on something essential, on the way of thinking that gives rise to the violence that already concerns us and will definitely concern the lives of our children.

  • How long will European fanaticism remain less dangerous than the current Islamist fanaticism?
  • Once it is in full bloom, will we be able to recognize it, to defend ourselves against it and to speak out against it? 
  • Will a large number of Europeans succumb to it, just as a large number of Europeans, for most of the 20th century, looked up to various forms of Fascism, to Hitlerism, and to Stalinism? 

Let's think about this immediately, now. For now there is still time, as this trend of cruelty, intolerance and stupidity has been accepted only by some Europeans... for now.

František Kostlán, translated by Gwendolyn Albert
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