July 13, 2006
On Fanatics, Religion, and IslamBy Jacques Dhervillez
Some people—those who assume that all religions are irrational superstitions—contend that any serious religious devotion is fanaticism. On the contrary, a logical analysis would seem to indicate that the term 'religious fanatic' is an oxymoron, like 'poor billionaire' or 'honest politician'. Let me explain.
A fanatic lives in a disproportionate universe, wherein one item, that most of us think of as trivial, looms up so large that everything else seems insignificant. And so he ignores the richness and diversity of the world he lives in and devotes his life to building elaborate model railroad layouts or playing bridge or saving a nearly extinct species of dragonfly. In doing so, he may neglect his family or profession and be forced to live in poverty—all for the sake of gaining the respect of a few fellow fanatics, a possible mention in the Guiness Book of Records, or most often just for the love of his bete blanche.
Fanatics often benefit humanity. The English traditionally cosset them and have in turn reaped the benefit of discoveries that could only have been made by someone in an obscure attic, spending every waking hour on something no one else would bother with. William Smith, an eighteenth century canal digger and surveyor, spent most of his life making a map of English rock formations and, after years of neglect and ridicule, ended up revolutionizing geology. Pavlov claimed that monomania was a prerequisite for successful scientists. Ditto for reformers, who, like the mouse that gnawed the oak tree down, have often devoted their lives to achieving modest social improvements.
Even when human betterment is not the goal, we're pretty tolerant about some fanatics. A man can devote every spare moment to golf or fly fishing and be admired for it. Others, such as chess wizards or Olympics athletes, are positively idolized.
But let's face it: fanatics usually give more attention to their obsession than it deserves. It is some achievement to extend the limits of human performance, but it is questionable whether it is worth the major part of one's life. The few decades allotted to even the luckiest of us are too precious to waste and, unlike most birthday presents, are unexchangeable and irreplaceable. Therefore, unless the objective is noble, I contend that most fanatics are guilty of a kind of prodigality or ingratitude.
Except for religion. If the believer in a religion happens to be right, if unquestioning devotion to his God in this life will result to an eternity of bliss in the next, then total dedication is at the very least a shrewd business deal. Moreover, absolute 24—7 devotion is a just and proportionate response to the demands of one's Maker and ultimate Judge. Even if the devotee's religion is wrong, he is merely guilty of a erroneous choice; the totality of his devotion is nonetheless reasonable. Therefore, as I said above, 'religious fanatic' would seem to be an oxymoron.
But on closer examination, there is room for fanaticism even in religion. A valid religion, one which provides a reliable road map for all the complexities of human life, involves a balance of many doctrines and practices, each stabilized by the others. Religious fanaticism results from a kind of tunnel vision, whereby one doctrine is singled out and all others ignored. For instance, in the whole Bible, amid hundreds of injunctions to be kind and just, there are two very brief mentions of handling snakes. Yet one group of cults in Tennessee made this the sole criterion for salvation, insisting 'it's snakes or hell!' Another Christian sect, despite Jesus' words on the comparative unimportance of the sabbath, seems to believe that salvation is determined by whether one goes to church on Saturday or Sunday. As Chesterton put it:
That is to say: heresies are generally monomanias—cases of fanatical tunnel vision.
The Question of Islam
But these are non—violent issues that our Western society has gradually learned to cope with peaceably. It is different within Islam. The issue of the succession of spiritual leadership after Mohammed has split Islam into Sunni vs. Shiite for fourteen centuries and is now causing bloodshed in Iraq. And the issue of Jihad, though interpreted in non—violent ways by some Muslims, is regarded by the Wahabi and other fundamentalist sects as nothing less than a continual total warfare against all unbelievers.
The urgent question we must now face is whether the concept of Jihad—as—warfare is
The answer will determine whether we are fighting a small group of fanatics who must be exterminated or are witnessing the beginning of a pan—Islamic uprising that will become the major struggle of this century.
Many Muslim spokesmen insist on definition (A). They want us to believe that most of Islam is peaceful and eager to co—exist with us. This may be the sincere belief, or at least the wishful thinking, of the majority of Muslims. On the other hand, it may be deliberate deception, i.e. taquiyya, the right of Muslims to lie about Islam to unbelievers.
But these are mere words—it's deeds that matter. Eleven centuries of uninterrupted warfare against unbelievers, starting during Mohammed's lifetime and continuing until the end of the caliphate, make it difficult to accept the concept of a peaceful Islam. . And the fact that every Islamic country has its terrorist havens would seem to prove that Jihad—as—warfare is alive and well in Islam. Moreover, the cartoon riots, and the massacres of Christians by Muslims in East Timor, the Sudan , and elsewhere , are hardly the work of a small band of fanatics; they seem more like the uprisings of entire communities.
The Answer: the Secular as Fanatic
But that still doesn't answer the question of whether Jihadism is intrinsic to Islam or the preoccupation of a sect of tunnel—visioned fanatics. I wrestled with this issue for over a month before realizing that the solution was to turn the problem inside out. In Islam, as in Christianity, it is the secular 'moderate' who suffers from tunnel vision.
Let's look at Christianity first. Whether you be fundamentalist, evangelical, or Catholic, the essence of Christian religion is a complete change of life: turning one's back on worldly ambitions and pleasures and devoting oneself to loving God and one's neighbor. Any impartial reader of the Gospels will come inevitably to that conclusion. As we said above, this is not fanaticism but a reasonable prioritization of ones life for anyone who believes in the Christian religion.
But most of us don't want to renounce this world and so we develop sufficient tunnel vision to avoid seeing this uncomfortable truth. Thus the secular Christian—who goes to church on Sunday but conveniently overlooks that impractical business of loving ones neighbor on Monday, when he goes to court about a boundary dispute—suffers from self—imposed tunnel vision just like a fanatic does. In fact, a Christian theologian would say that he is a fanatic inasmuch as he is unduly obsessed with the things of this world and ignores more important eternal matters.
So it is with Islam. The Jihadist is not a fanatic at all; he is simply following the tenets if Islam, as set forth in the Qur'an (e.g. in the eighth and ninth suras) and as the ambassador from pirate—ruled Tripoli once instructed Jefferson and Adams:
It is rather the secular Muslim, attracted by the ease of a peaceful life and the opportunities and comforts of the Western world, who stoops to the self—deception of tunnel vision. He tries to juggle his religion and his desires by claiming that the definition of Jihad is 'ambiguous.' But unlike his Christian counterpart, the secular Muslim seldom succeeds in fooling himself. I suspect that he usually knows he is not really following Islam and feels guilty about it. This is one of the reasons why I believe that most secular Muslims will ultimately yield to and cooperate with the Jihadists.
During the 1930's, many Germans were indifferent or even silently hostile to Hitler and the Nazis. But when push came to shove, they cooperated with the regime out of fear and self—interest. In the same way, if there is a general uprising of Islamic true believers, I fear that many or all of the secular Muslims—bound to their Islamic communities by ties of blood, custom, and tradition, under the pressure of ostracism and persecution by their neighbors and leaders, and goaded by their sense of guilt—would probably go along with the tide, even if it is a crimson one.
What Secular Muslims Must Do
The weight of the evidence is that the problem is not a band if fanatics within Islam but Islam itself—that we may have an impending global war to contend with and must prepare for it before it's too late. If the leaders of Islam, and the masses of 'liberal' or 'secular' Muslims, wish to disprove this contention, then they must do so not by words but by deeds—by exposing, uprooting and destroying the Jihadists and terrorists within their ranks. And aside from a few isolated incidents, I don't see that happening.
On the contrary, as a Canadian Security Intelligence Service official recently stated after a terrorist arrest:
It is hard to imagine that the Muslim friends and neighbors of these neo—Jihadists do not realize this is happening. Apparently, for understandable but inexcusable reasons, they choose to turn on their tunnel vision and not see it.