The Clash of Extremisms

Do not go to excesses in your religion.

— The Quran, 4:171

I remember the first time long ago I had listened to Dr. Zakir Naik speak on extremism. I had been enthralled by the brilliant ‘turning the tables’ logic with which he spoke refuting the charge of extremism against Muslims: ‘Yes, Muslims are extremists in the sense that they are supposed to be extremely good, extremely peace-loving, extremely honest, extremely kind etc.’ I remember how I had quoted it afterwards. Years later, I feel I have lost the naive idealism. I miss now that juvenile conviction I had drawn from Dr. Naik’s words.

In the long years of my association with various Islamic groups, I have had quite the opposite thrown in my face. The spectre of extremism lurks very really at the heart of contemporary Islamism.

To be fair, however, it has to be clarified that extremism is not an exclusive enterprise of believers in religion. Extremist patterns of thought are clearly decipherable both among the secular-liberals who see all religion as regressive and among the religious who espouse extreme fringe interpretations of religion, very often not warranted by their own sacred texts. Both kind of extremists hold on to a dogmatic belief in the absolute rightness of their own worldview in total opposition and exclusion to all others. This rigid adherence may be a reaction to the pluralism and fluidity of postmodern society where nothing seems to hold ground and there is no generally accepted transcendent absolute truth to live by. Often, there are inherent contradictions at the core of the extremist sensibility: the secular extremist for instance, while believing in pluralism and tolerance, is convinced of the wrongness and inferiority of all differing worldviews. Similarly, the religious extremist very often betrays the essence of what he claims to believe in. The Quran says, “Be steadfastly balanced witnesses for Allah in equity, and let not hatred of any people seduce you that you deal not justly. Deal justly, that is nearer to your duty.” (5:8)

Certainty is a human need, and as societies modernize and become more pluralistic, certainty becomes harder to find as doubt and scepticism of traditionally held ideas grows among the proliferation of contending perspectives. This need to anchor oneself in what is believed to be universally true is therefore intensified and stances harden. The subject takes comfort in adherence to what gives him certainty and makes the universe meaningful for him. In a diverse milieu where ideas struggle for ascendancy, this often becomes fanatical adherence and grows exclusivist and at times even militant, especially in the case of the religious extremist who takes cover under religion to sanctify his ‘righteous anger’ against the degenerate out-group. However, as Peter Berger states, the psychological profile of the dogmatic secularist is remarkably similar to the religious extremist. While ostensibly being averse to and rejecting each other, both actually thrive on the other’s extremism. They seek justification of their extreme positions by citing the unreasonable, degenerate and dangerous agenda of the other which cannot be left to seek converts. They fan hatred and hostility through suspicion and threat-perception, feed off one another and fuel each other in a vicious cycle of provocation and reaction. Extremists of both the secular and the religious kind work wonderfully well as cohorts.

In her article ‘Our Dogmatic Liberals’, Humeira Iqtedar takes on Pakistan’s (pseudo) liberal elite: ‘The Islamists may have their own agenda but to continuously define themselves in a reactive opposition to their stances would be a fatal mistake for groups that claim a stake in progressive politics. By remaining stuck in a static definition of progressive and regressive and allying themselves ever more closely with oppressive power, the liberals may ultimately render their cause irrelevant. For those of us committed to a just and democratic Pakistan, these dogmatic liberals are as great a danger as the militants.’

The defining characteristic of extremist thought is a social imagination based on binary opposition of ideas, that is, defining and understanding concepts as diametrically opposed mutually exclusive terms. For instance, ‘democracy’ and ‘Islam’, even though a number of democratic values like equality of opportunity, public accountability and consensus of opinion are not alien to Islamic tradition and history. Similarly, secularism and Islam are seen as water-tight, fixedly opposing ideas, even though secular values like tolerance and pluralism and discouragement of theocracy are recognized by Islam. Understanding ‘secular’ to mean ‘that which pertains to the world’ (its literal meaning) makes it have a fundamental orientation akin to Islam which chooses to describe itself as ‘Deen’ and not ‘religion.’

The world is seen as black and white with the extremist’s colourblind vision — a battleground of ideas and ideologies. To minds like these, theories like the ‘Clash of Civilizations’ have strong appeal and make a perfect fit. During my research on the responses to the said theory, I discovered remarkable similarity between the stances of Islamist thinkers and Western neoconservatives. If the jargon was interchanged, one would not be able to tell if it was coming from Abu Hamza Al Masri or Daniel Pipes or Anjum Chowdhry or Bill Maher.

However, it has to be mentioned here that many feared Muslim religious extremists and militants notably Osama bin Laden clearly do not aim rhetoric at belief, values and ideology, but at politics and policy. Secular extremists on the other hand are often virulently Islamophobic, aiming vituperative rhetoric at a belief system, a faith, a people. This kind of an attack aimed at identity and what is most sacred to human beings is intensely provocative and has whipped up a strong backlash from Muslim communities. When secular societies tolerate in their midst maniacs like Terry Jones and Geert Wilders, they add insult to injury, aggravate the hurt and anger and utterly betray the secular principles they claim to uphold. It will not be inaccurate to say that religious extremism in the Muslim world is reactive in nature- a response to the calculated imposition and relentless onslaught of the Western secular order on non Western societies in a reckless manner that disrespects religio-cultural sensitivities, hurts in the softest part. The rise of religious extremism among Muslims has only followed the attempts by developed nations in the Northern-Western hemisphere to globalize what was perceived as a ‘superior’culture, civilization and way of life. Understanding this gives an important insight into religious extremism- that it is a response and a reaction articulated by restive conservative populations smothered under the sway of an imposed ‘superior’ secular order.

This said, religious extremists in Pakistan are distressingly out of touch with contemporary reality and unfamiliar with its nuances. With a naive faith in their simplistic black-and-white thinking, alternate perspectives and counter narratives are met with disdainful rejection and self-righteous condemnation. A discomfiting ‘cognitive dissonance’ is created when an idea that does not fit into the subject’s familiar thought pattern is introduced. This leads to strong reactionary responses to defend and vindicate one’s own thinking.

This is not only with regard to the religious extremist’s rejection of secular ideas but also those coming from other denominations and schools of thought within the extremist’s own religious tradition. Denunciation of diverse religious opinions is at times so extreme that the one holding differing views is ‘excommunicated’ and accused of heresy and serious infidelity. The poet-philosopher Iqbal wrote in a moment of distress, ‘Waaiz e tang nazar ne mujh ko kafir jana / Aur kafir samajhta hai Musulman hoon mein.’ (The narrow minded preacher considered me an infidel / While the unbeliever insists that I remain Muslim.)

In the midst of an array of contending ideas, within the recesses of the extremist’s mind there is perhaps an unconscious awareness of the untenability of the ideas he blindly holds on to, and this leads to a strong sense of insecurity and vulnerability which develops into victim psychology as the subject imagines himself to be pitted against a hostile world that is out to eradicate the belief that gives him meaning. The following is part of a post circulated in an Islamic group, pertaining to the USAID photographic exhibition in Lahore in June this year. The sense of perceived threat is strong enough to be palpable, as is the urgency to fight back and defend: “…This is the most dangerous attack on us. Now, they are going with well directed plan to take the reactionary factor from our souls!

This is the part of NEW WORLD ORDER strategy. Their final goal is to create a world free of religion and highly secular. This campaign is the part of BIG PLAN.”

The extremist responds to cognitive dissonance in one of two ways: aggression, militancy and violence; or a stiff and unrelenting exclusivism. Exclusivist trends lead a religious community to ghettoize, shelter itself from corrosive external influences and strengthen an internal sense of community. This also explains the proliferation of world-rejecting Islamist groups all over the world.

The extremist takes comfort in erecting barricades of religiosity to create an insular comfort zone. This leads to intensified and exaggerated personal assertions of piety that enable the individual to set himself apart from what is profane with a comforting sense of moral superiority. Rafia Zakaria studies the revival of the burqa in Pakistan’s wealthy elite as a symbol of pious exclusivity, which has dwindled into the ‘most fashionable route to paradise’: ‘The revived burka of the rich begum can, it seems, traverse all the boundaries of unfettered spending and showmanship, sport crystals and pearls, cost more than the salaries of maids, chauffeurs and maybe a couple of office clerks combined, and yet magically invest its wearer with instant purity and piety.’ Exclusivism leads to a sense of moral responsibility to separate oneself from the depraved and wanton. This separatism leads to an exaggerated emphasis on the outward, an assertion of externality and a shift away from the necessary inner spirituality one expects from the religiously oriented. During my association with religious groups, I was consistently and unfailingly disillusioned with many apparently religious individuals who inadvertently displayed a most abysmal inner moral condition.

The extremist also has no penchant for self-criticism. The readiness to introspect and engage in self-examination and personal reform is at the heart of all moral systems and spiritual doctrines, a hallmark of humility that is central to faith. I can comment with some credibility on this point, having tried several times in the recent past to express alternative perspectives on extremist forums on social networking sites. Invariably, the dissenting voice is beaten back with indignation, and jeered at in most obscene and unethical ways. Often, the commentator is suspected of harbouring malafide intentions. Initiating a discussion on such forums therefore is impossible because the conditions for genuine conversation almost never exist. Members feel insecure and threatened by alternative perspectives, and respond brashly often in swaggering and demeaning tones, failing to let go of preconceived notions and prejudices. The ‘Us and Them’ divide sets to work and seems to be the defining premise for any discussion. Stubbornness and self-righteousness, coupled with an unwillingness to listen to another on their own terms, utterly rules out genuine communication and healthy debate, and makes all such groups terribly stunted, suffocating and unpromising.

One cannot exclude from the picture the crucial influence of global politics and contemporary international affairs which fans extremist sentiment- both religious and anti-religious. Political leaders in the West have done little to assuage rife sentiments in the Muslim world after US military adventurism in Afghanistan and Iraq, and its continued support to Israel which has relentlessly oppressed Palestinians. Misgivings against the West understandably increase and a reactionary sense of victimhood is exacerbated given the bare fact of heinous crimes against predominantly Muslim populations committed by the US and its allies as well as their insidious politicking that has inflicted terrible damage in Muslim lands. Terms like ‘Islamic terrorist’, ‘Islamic fundamentalist’ etc have been used liberally with careless indiscrimination by the global media alongwith biased rhetoric and stereotyping of the Muslim persona. Shlomo Avineri traces this back to the ancient mistrust and fear of Islam that has haunted the Western imagination since before the Crusades: “The underlying assumption has always been that Islam — as a culture and not just a religious creed — was primitive, underdeveloped, retrograde, at best stuck in the memory hole of a medieval splendour out of which it could not disengage itself without a radical transformation; and this could only be based on Western, ‘rational’, ‘progressive’ values.”

Muslim societies in general and youth in particular seethe with a strong sense of injustice and bitterness which makes them anchor all hope in the revival of the Islamic Khilafah. The shadow of a Khalifa who would embody the glory and ascendancy of Islam haunts the Muslim imagination, and its absence transforms the Khilafah in their collective consciousness into a surreal Neverland from which Muslims have been exiled through the machinations of the enemy. History is selectively narrated to reinforce this, ignoring the fact that even a divinely instituted system is established and driven by far-from-perfect human beings, and Muslims have done little to raise themselves up to the pristine, almost otherworldly ideals they nurture.

This selectivity is not just present in the Muslim historical narrative but also in the juristic tradition of Islam, and in the scholarly enterprise of the interpretation of religious texts. The aspects of religion traditionally highlighted and disseminated generally reflect the sensibility and values of the religious elite and their attitudes which have over much of Islamic history been patriarchal and parochial. On the issue of divorce, for instance, two prophetic traditions of equal authenticity are unequally emphasized: the first which masses know by rote is of how divorce is the most disliked of the permissible things; the other very rarely known is how the Prophet (SAW) termed one of the worst sins to be the refusal to divorce leaving the wife trapped in an unhappy marriage. It is not difficult to guess why the former tradition enjoys far greater import and is propagated vigorously while the latter is kept obscured. Which values and whose are privileged through this selectivity is also obvious. In a book of hadith explanation I came across the tradition that commanded men not to stop or discourage women from going to the mosques. The medieval commentator had subtitled it ‘Women must seek permission from husbands for visiting mosques’, which by any stretch of imagination was not the explicit order of the hadith, though it clearly was the preferred inference made by the male commentator.

Cherry-picking from religious texts by ulema makes them guilty of a dishonesty towards the sacred tradition they have been entrusted with as well as towards the ordinary Muslim who readily and uncritically accepts what the cleric has to offer.

The problem of clashing extremisms is not amenable to a simple solution, and is likely to remain for a long time. However, for the survival of human society, both camps will have to learn to make major compromises. Both will need to realize that ours is a jostling planet and that the survival of any group or community lies in learning to give space, to tolerate and accept the fact that there can and always will be several contending worldviews, and this diversity characterizes human society in the postmodern world.

We have to learn to agree to disagree and yet not lose sight of the common thread that runs through and knits up the colourful human family regardless of religious or secular orientation. ‘And mankind is but one family. But they disagree.’ (The Noble Quran, 10:19) The way we educate our young must be informed by an awareness and appreciation of this commonality and the ethics of disagreement. In this regard, the ‘Charter of Compassion’ project undertaken by Karen Armstrong is right on target given the chaotic and frightening times we are living through and the dark clouds gathering on the horizons. The ‘Us versus Them’ narrative of political policymakers backed by the military-industrial complex and echoed by the media needs to be enthusiastically rejected. An academic study of Islam needs to be undertaken and encouraged very seriously so as to develop a deeper, insightful and informed understanding of the evolution of Muslim identity and consciousness, and the roots of extremism. This will expose and defeat the black-and-white discourse of the traditionalist seminary, the simplistic nature of which exercises seductive power on gullible mass mindsets. Scholars who understand the dimensions and vicissitudes of contemporary society and how religion can effectively engage with the secular order, who see a vibrant constructive role for religion and have not lost sight of its potential to harmonize and help create the necessary consensus of values needed for any society to function must be heard in this hysterical bedlam of extremisms.

Maryam Sakeenah is a student of International Relations based in Pakistan. She is also a high school teacher and freelance writer with a degree in English Literature. She is interested in human rights advocacy and voluntary social work and can be reached at: Read other articles by Maryam.