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A Call for Creative Extremists

January 16th, 2015 Leave a comment Go to comments

For me an event like the terrorist attacks in France last week (1/7-9/15) always leaves more questions than answers. Like everyone else I learn of things through Western media, and even though there is a wide variety of news outlets they all seem to report the same things. And so like everyone else I am compelled to witness, in this case, a seemingly endless stream of acts of terrorism accomplished by “Muslim Extremists.” In the last two months we saw the siege in Sydney (the deed of a lunatic acting alone) and the Charlie Hebdo event, both accomplished by self-proclaimed Muslims supposedly acting in defense of their Prophet, while at the same time we hear of acts of unspeakable barbarism in the Middle East and Africa committed, again, by “Islamic Extremists.”

I think for many these events simply serve to emphasize what they already believe, which is that Islam is the enemy. I am sickened when I see caricatures of bomb toting Middle Easterners with beards and turbans put forward as representative of all Muslims, for the purpose of confirming that all Muslims are our enemies. I know this is not true because I personally know a number of Muslims who are not terrorists, not even in sleeper cells waiting to be activated, who want nothing more than the rest of us want, which is to live in peace and freedom. And yet the evidence seems to indicate that there must be a link between Islam and brutal acts of violence and terrorism, all in the name of defending the Prophet. This is why I am left with more questions than answers.

In the wake of the last tragedy, while many of my contemporaries were quickly arriving at conclusions, I was at a loss to find meaning. Of course I heard the hyper-jingoistic reactions which in the end boil down to little more than the cartoon image of character Joe Swanson bellowing “Bring it ON!” But there are other voices and other events. One thing that caught my attention after the Paris attacks was that there were far more severe acts of terrorism in Sudan and Syria coinciding with what was happening in France, but that these seemed to receive little attention. Why? If we were to conclude the importance of events from the volume of media coverage devoted to each we would be left with the idea that freedom of the press is much more important than the freedom to live in peace and safety and to worship God without interference.

I might here remind the reader that when Franklin Roosevelt put forward his vision of Four Freedoms as a goal for the world in his lifetime he did place “freedom of speech and expression” first on the list. But second was “freedom of every person to worship God in his own way—everywhere in the world.” It seems that in the West at least, we have erected an idol to the first and repudiated the second. One of the predictable reactions to the events in Paris was to declare that religion itself was to blame. As if to say if there was no religion there would be no terror. And that is a proposition that is simply too ridiculous to even respond to.

Scholars have known for some time that the seeds of terrorism are planted in the soil of despair. There is no mystery there. Going as far back as 1843 Charles Dickens was able to warn the Scrooges of the Industrial Revolution to beware of the two hideous children in the protection of the Ghost of Christmas Present: Want and Ignorance. Beware them both, he said. We know that a great deal of the resentment Middle Easterners aim at the West is fueled by the debilitating economic and social consequences of Western colonialism. So when we learn that the perpetrators in Paris were poor and marginalized Muslim immigrants, we are not surprised.

But one thing I have noticed that puzzles me is that al Qaeda, the Taliban, and now ISIS seem to draw European and American youth. These don’t seem to fit the mold. They don’t all come from disadvantaged backgrounds. Some begin their journey to radicalism in the comfort of middle class suburbia, through the lens of advanced Western technology. What could possibly inspire people like these to declare the culture they were raised in to be their mortal enemy?

I recently read an article which pointed out that only a small percentage of all acts of terrorism are accomplished by “Muslim Terrorists.” In fact most are not accomplished by any kind of religious extremists. Most, in fact, are committed by separatists. Separatists are people who desire to declare themselves and their territory independent of whatever larger political power currently rules them. They want to establish their own law for their own identifiable group. What characterizes separatists and links them to religious extremism is a sense of identity. Solidarity can be found in association with self-declared Corsicans (nationalists), or with Muslims (religionists). The point has been well made that Islamism is a political expression of the religion of Islam. What do al Qaeda and the Taliban, ISIS and other Islamic extremists have in common? The desire to see the creation of an Islamic state in some configuration, governed by whatever supposedly Islamic law they choose to elevate. And what will make this state a nation is its common devotion to Islam.

How this answers my question about privileged white kids being drawn to Islamic extremism is that it gives them a sense of identity, a solidarity with a larger whole, a heroic quest for the goal of bringing about justice for an oppressed people.

These things are missing in Western life. Religion has lost much of its sway. Even where it is practiced in the West it does not provide any basis for identity. Put a conservative Roman Catholic and a fundamentalist Protestant in a room and have them discuss solidarity. The idea of the “Christian” nation, never really true to begin with, is receding from the popular imagination. With the passing of the colonial order the self-proclaimed European “civilizing mission” inspires no one. Americans have for the most part lost their belief in their manifest destiny in the world. Roosevelt’s vision of Americans blessing the world with Four Freedoms no longer inspires. Young men went to Vietnam sure they were defending freedom. Young people going to war today hope only to survive their time in service so they can reap rewards in education and upward social mobility. One veteran of Iraq describes his experience this way, “Our lives were crumbling so that we could pretend to help people who pretended to appreciate it.”[1] Cynicism dominates.

All of this is symptomatic of the failure of the Enlightenment meta-narrative. This is a big topic that can’t really be represented in a short telling here, but the gist of it is that in the time leading up to World War 2 people in the West were propelled by the idea of progress. Historically this notion arose out of the so-called Enlightenment. The foundational belief of Westerners through the nineteenth and twentieth centuries was that through scientific and technological advance and liberal education humans would inevitably achieve liberation and enlightenment. This was the meta-narrative, the overall self-pronouncing story of the past present and future Westerners told themselves.

By the end of the Second World War people began to lose confidence in this story. The twentieth century saw the most unbelievable brutality – the Western Front, the Holocaust, the Atomic Bomb – accomplished by the most scientifically and technologically advanced, the most highly educated people in history. How can you reconcile this with the idea of the inevitability of liberation and enlightenment through science and education? The meta-narrative was also called “Modern,” hence the period after World War 2, the one we still inhabit, became known as postmodernism.

Many scholars have studied and debated postmodernism, and many have either celebrated or dreaded its consequences, but the truth is that the only concrete thing characterizing the postmodern world is that the West has lost its story. Prior to World War 2 people in the West were comfortable in the assurance that the world was moving toward a man made fulfillment. Postmoderns have no such assurance. They have no story to inhabit that gives their life meaning.

So when we see what may be (and is, unfortunately quite successfully by fanatical “scholars”) characterized as a holy and noble struggle for justice we should not be surprised that youth, who have been challenged to little more than achieving middle class banality in pursuit of more expensive gadgets, are excited by the prospect of entering a heroic story that gives their life meaning. Even acts which were taught as too brutal for “civilized” people can be justified in pursuit of such a cause.

In the West, “progress” replaced religion as the binding social narrative of the modern era. The postmodern era has no narrative, so people, especially young people, are left to find meaning wherever they can. If terrorist violence provides that meaning, and we want to end the violence, we must offer a better alternative.

The end of extremism is tied to the pursuit of authentic justice. I want you to listen to the words of Martin Luther King, Jr., who gave his life in the pursuit of justice to counter the extremism that destroys. In his Letter from A Birmingham Jail King wrote about the strategy of non-violent confrontational protest:

And now this approach is being termed extremist. But though I was initially disappointed at being categorized as an extremist, as I continued to think about the matter I gradually gained a measure of satisfaction from the label. Was not Jesus an extremist for love: “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you.” Was not Amos an extremist for justice: “Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever flowing stream.” Was not Paul an extremist for the Christian gospel: “I bear in my body the marks of the Lord Jesus.” Was not Martin Luther an extremist: “Here I stand; I cannot do otherwise, so help me God.” And John Bunyan: “I will stay in jail to the end of my days before I make a butchery of my conscience.” And Abraham Lincoln: “This nation cannot survive half slave and half free.” And Thomas Jefferson: “We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal . . .” So the question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate or for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice or for the extension of justice? In that dramatic scene on Calvary’s hill three men were crucified. We must never forget that all three were crucified for the same crime–the crime of extremism. Two were extremists for immorality, and thus fell below their environment. The other, Jesus Christ, was an extremist for love, truth and goodness, and thereby rose above his environment. Perhaps the South, the nation and the world are in dire need of creative extremists.

Extremism cannot be tied to one or any religion. We will not see the end of extremist violence until we make the pursuit of justice our holy cause.

[1] Crawford, John. The Last True Story I’ll Ever Tell: an Accidental Soldier’s Account of the War in Iraq. New York: Riverhead Trade, 2006.

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