May 1, 2007

The Root of Extremism

With the tragic, highlight events of the dawn of the 21st Century emblazoned on people's consciousness, it is easy to think of extremism as a religious and a foreign phenomenon. However, both assumptions are false.
Let's deal with the second issue first. Is extremism--in today's understanding--strictly something that exists 'out there', that is, beyond the borders of the 'North American' or 'developed' world?

Part of the problem is the question of degree. If we think of extremism as manifested in 'acts of terror,' then it's too easy to relegate the idea to shadowy, foreign sources--most likely clad in flowing robes, and having bushy, black beards. But, the real danger is in the mind-set of extremism--the kind of thinking that, given the right circumstances, results in extreme acts of violence. In my view, that mind-set is evident in every society, whether developed or developing, in narrow economic terms. It is, regrettably, all too evident even (or especially) in the ranks of the Christian community in the USA. Let me explain.

One statement to emerge from the last US presidential election (2004) was intended to be humorous... while packing a great deal of truth into a few phrases. It goes like this: "the reason that GW Bush won the election is that the Democrats erroneously believed that the most important issue was the engaging of the US in an illegal, unjustified, bloody war in Iraq over the need of greedy corporations for access to oil... while the Republicans correctly knew that the real issue was abortions and homosexuality." At first glance, this statement looks simply like a clever, political commentary; one that is both patently true and ironic. On looking deeper, it also exposes one of the more curious aspects of American religious fundamentalism.

Think about it. How does it happen that many people reading that statement can't see the irony at all, and are convinced that the latter were the overriding issues? In other words, how has it come about that ostensibly educated, 'modern' people in a so-called developed nation, are adamant that certain sexual practices represent a bigger threat than an immoral war that has cost thousands of needless American deaths and many thousands of Iraqi deaths? Isn't that essentially the same as Moslems believing that insulting the Koran is a crime worthy of a 'fatwa' (death decree)? How has the Western world become so blind, lost so much perspective, 'taken leave of its senses' (to use that flowery Victorian phrase)? For let's be serious; is the prospect of two males or two females engaging in sexual conduct so heinous as to eclipse the horror of modern warfare, with its phosphorus explosives, smart bombs, depleted-uranium shells, weapons of mass destruction, etc., etc.?

To the liberal mind (or indeed, I'd argue, the impartial thinker), the answer is an obvious 'no way!' Yet, to the far-right, conservative way of thinking, the immediate response is 'of course!' An objective person has to ask 'where do the conservatives get their response?' One could point to 'holy scripture' which, again, is basically the same source of Islamic extreme ideas. Then what is it about religious scripture that leads its readers to conclude that certain matters of sexual morality are more important, and their infraction more horrific and of greater consequence, than the exercise of mass murder-- which we have given the convenient label of 'war'? When stated in such monochromatic terms, I hope the situation becomes much more discernible.

But to return to the basic question: where do religionists derive this notion of sexual propriety over everything else? In truth, if one reads the Christian scriptures carefully, one is hard pressed to reach any such conclusion. Sure, the New Testament warns against sexual immorality; but it hardly makes a fuss about it, and certainly doesn't place sexual sins in any greater status than any other sins. If one decides to include the Old Testament, the scripture of the Israelites (whom we now call, rather loosely, Jews) then we might have more ammunition. In elaborating on the Ten Commandments, the books of Moses do inveigh heavily against 'fornication,' homosexuality, incest, and other sexual perversions. And the prescribed penalties for these crimes was usually pretty stiff, up to death by stoning. Why Christians continue to attach the Old Testament scriptures to their own, superceding holy writ is a big question that deserves a substantial answer that is outside the scope of this essay. Suffice it to say that for historical reasons, the Christian church(es) adopted the Jewish canon as an integral part of their own.

Altho I must confess ignorance of the contents of the Koran (or Quran) it seems more than likely to me that this book, too, simply does not elevate one category of fleshly sins as being more heinous than any other. Certainly, it would not assign sexual sins as more reprehensible than murder. Yet, again, a significant segment of Islamic adherents believe that nonsense (as demonstrated in their harsh treatment of 'adulterers'-- usually female, of course). More troubling among Moslems, though, is that plenty of them believe that those who transgress any of the tenets of Islam are deserving of death. To this element, suicide for the sake of the cause is not only justified but merits martyr status. While moderate Muslims question the violence espoused by the extremists as unsupported by the Koran, the fringe are always oblivious to such appeals to their ostensible authority.

So, the extreme elements of either Christianity or Islam have concluded that certain behaviors are more sinful than others, and worse, that correcting those errors can justify any punishment, up to and including death. This is a great face for religionists of any stripe to display to an on-looking and increasing secular (irreligious) world! Is that what these religions really teach? Well, yes and no. No, the scriptures do not single out certain behaviors as so awful as to require aggressive eradication; (definitely not the teachings of Christ, in any case.) And no, the present-day, official stance of the mainstream churches and mosques is to denounce violence as a solution to bad behavior. Yet... there are certain sects among Islam, Christianity, and Judaism that reserve the right to resort to extreme methods to enforce morality as they define it. And even within any given mainstream religion, there are always certain individuals who have decided that the official position is far too 'soft' on crime, and that God 'demands punishment' of whatever happen to be their favorite perversions.

Now where do these religionists who hold extreme views get them? One can postulate all kinds of psycho-babble, but in the end, the answer is legalism. What is legalism? It is the inculcated paradigm that we must all perform within strictly defined boundaries in order to keep God satisfied with the human race and with individuals. Those defined boundaries can be very narrow and often enforced with incredible harshness. The record of history as illustrative of legalism is a sorry one, indeed. Think of the Inquisitions of the Dark Ages; incarceration of petty thieves in mediaeval Europe; public floggings and beheadings for various misdemeanors; and so on. But note something else; the legalism that has infected and distorted religion has also carried over into what we call the secular (non-religious) world. Conservatives and legalism seem to fit together like a hand in glove. For in the fear-based conservative mind, everyone is judged on behavior, and 'bad behavior'--as they define it--is deserving of punishment. That punishment is sanctioned by God, for the religionists, or else by the state, for the legalistic secularists. Ironically, there's little difference between them; the church-goers eagerly join hands with the government when they see an opportunity to achieve their ends. This common cause of legalism answers the first part of my opening question--is extemism peculiar solely to religion?

Of course, secularism is a recent, modern phenomenon, since the world up until the 'Enlightenment' era, made little material distinction between the religious and non-religious realms. There was only 'one world under God' for most societies, until scientific materialism came along in Europe. Such was the overarching influence of religion in previous times that today's Western populaces, even religious folk, could hardly imagine it. We continue to see examples of such religious states today, notably in the Islamic countries (though even tiny Tibet was a Buddhist state before being invaded by the People's Republic of China). These present-day religious nations are, for the most part, sad testimonies of the glories of godliness. They tend to be strict, authoritarian regimes, brooking no opposition to their rule, and dealing harshly with crime, especially with that age-old whipping-boy, sexual offences. They are particularly repressive of women, although this fact is always disguised as 'protecting womanhood.' There's probably not one religious regime anywhere in the world that the ultra-conservatives of the American 'religious right' would honestly care to call home.

Yet, back in America, the religious right call for restrictions on homosexuals, making abortions illegal, banning 'pornography' (as they may define it) and stiffer penalties for 'perverts' of various kinds. At the same time, they see no problem with sending US troops to a far-away country they can't find on a map, to topple a dictator their government once actively supported, and to find weapons that didn't exist. They don't have a problem with that warped patriotism, nor with the spilling of 'collateral blood' of innocent Iraqi civilians... since in their minds, all Arabs are potential terrorists, and all terrorists deserve to die. The notion of state-directed terrorism is a nuance that flies over their primitive consciousness. While eagerly supporting American terrorism abroad, the religious folk seem to have no interest in using that military might to end the suffering of the people of Darfur, in southern Sudan. Just as they let the US sit on its hands during the genocide in Rwanda in 1994, so they are satisfied to ignore the situation in Darfur in 2005. Why is that? Because those African countries are of no 'strategic' (read commercial) value, being peopled by poor blacks and possessing no exploitable resources, perhaps?

Enough legalists cast their vote in the last US election that they managed to squeeze their moral leader into the White House for another bloody term of office. They felt justified that their man was in agreement with them and opposed gay rights, and abortion. Now the 'free world' would be a decent, safe place for law-abiding folk. There's a lot wrong with this naive picture, but let's just consider two. First, it appears that the religious folk, like the mass of Americans, have become so inured to the constant depictions of violence on their viewing screens (TV, movie theatres, video-games) that they no longer even think of it as a perversion to be opposed. At least, not until the USA itself becomes a scene of violent attack. So, while they howl against 'homos,' they have little serious compassion for the suffering going on in Iraq, Afganistan, Darfur, and so on. Second, by his stubbornly misguided decisions, their man in DC has certainly not made the world either more decent, or safer! By persisting in justifying their illegal and immoral foreign policies, the present administration is simply goading the extremists, and worse, supplying them with useful propaganda in their efforts to recruit more martyrs. As for decency, is it more decent to persecute individuals born with an unorthodox sexual nature, or to accept them as children of God who need special understanding? By every measure, the religious bigots in and out of the White House have made a mockery of the faith they claim to believe in, and in the process have set the world on a very dangerous path for the future. In attempting to enforce their childish, legalistic views on society, the extremists of every religion simply make the notion of religion repulsive to the unbelieving... while being counterproductive to any lasting solutions to the ills of society.

What will these 'religious' folk say to their God when He enquires about their obvious inconsistent sense of morality on Judgement Day?

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