Defining, confronting fanaticism

CONFLICTS are taking place in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, and in other places. Fanaticism fuels many of these conflicts and presents the risk that they may flare up into all-out wars. Fanaticism is an unshakeable conviction that one is right and all others are wrong. It is an attitude that is against reconciliation and in favour of taking hardline, inflexible positions. It is an attitude that favours burning bridges, not building them. A person with a fanatical attitude has little tolerance for diversity. He or she wants everyone to be the same, think the same, and dress the same.

But God stated in the Quran: “O mankind! We created you from a single (pair) of a male and a female, and made you into nations and tribes, that ye may know each other (not that ye may despise (each other). Verily the most honoured of you in the sight of Allah is (he who is) the most righteous of you.” (Quran 49: 13). Islam accepts reasonable disagreement (ikhtilaf) based on sound evidence.

The fanatic is different from a person with firm convictions. The latter arrives at his convictions through thoughtful reflection. But a fanatic refuses to discuss his views, and may even stick to false beliefs, believing that any change in his views is a sure sign of weakness.

In other words, fanaticism should not be confused with piety (taqwa). Fanaticism goes to excesses, violating Islam’s teaching on moderation (wasatiyyah), while a pious person is restrained and gentle. The false confidence of the fanatic is very different from the yaqin or inner certainty of the God-conscious believer.

Fanatical leaders can be charismatic. One manifestation of fanaticism is blind obedience. Leaders of fanatical movements play on the fears of their followers. Fanaticism is often coupled with racism and xenophobia, and thrives on suspicion.

The phenomenon of fanaticism sometimes arises in response to a real or perceived injustice. The feeling of having been treated unjustly makes the fanatic feel that he can do whatever it takes to correct a past injustice. People also become fanatical through indoctrination. Fanatics believe “If you are not with us, you are against us.” Demonising the “other” is a major part of fanaticism.

No community has been spared the scourge of fanaticism. Fanatics in history include the Nazis. Others include the Crusaders. The Spanish Inquisition was also an example of fanaticism. In Islamic history, fanatics include the Kharijites.

In modern times, fanatical movements include the GIA or the Armed Islamic Group of Algeria, which adopted violence after the military put an end to the election of 1992, when the largest opposition party was on the verge of taking power. Malaysia had to contend with al-Ma’unah. As a result of their contempt for restraint, fanatics behave in self-destructive ways.

History is replete with examples of the demise of fanatics. No fanatical group ever prevailed in the long run. They were all defeated sooner or later.

The threat of fanaticism is a challenge to every civilised community. The moderate majority needs to stand up to the fringe movements. Moderation or wasatiyyah is a central Quranic concept. “We have created you a middle (moderate) community,” states the Quran (2:143). The rampage of the so-called “Islamic State” in Iraq is only the most recent example of a fanatical movement. It has already caused much damage to Muslims as well as non-Muslims.

While western powers cannot be excused for contributing to the rise of this group through injudicious interference in the internal affairs of other nations, this does not justify the excesses of the Islamic State.

Beheading non-combatants, blowing up of others’ mosques, and calling for their supporters in other nations to kill civilians at random in retaliation is not permitted in Islam. By their actions, the IS has wrought incalculable damage to the cause of Islam and the worldwide reputation of Muslims. It is necessary for the moderate majority of Muslims to stand up to the fanatics before they inflict more damage.

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Defining, confronting fanaticism

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