Friday, July 08, 2005



Zaoui on extremism

Ahmed Zaoui gave a lecture on "The roots of religious extremism and our response" in Wellington yesterday. I didn't get to go, but it seems appropriate to review it, given what happened in London last night.

Zaoui draws a distinction between religious fundamentalism (adherence to the fundamental doctrines of one's faith) and extremism. The former is characterised by (in the words of David Forte):

a reliance on the will of God as the source of truth, typically codified in a particular source (scripture), a relative disparagement of the role of reason, a tendency towards literalism, a reaction against foreign or modern elements or accretions, and a duality in one’s eschatological conception of existence (good/evil, spirit/matter, God/Satan, us/them, certainty of triumph/imminence of defeat.)

Extremists share all of this, but in addition are characterised by

a view that one monopolises the truth, intolerance to diversity and difference, and violent rhetoric which excludes ‘the other’

So, all religious extremists are fundamentalists, but not all fundamentalists are extremists - which maps fairly well to the reality. Most Christian fundamentalists wouldn't hurt a fly, and would be horrified at the idea of murder in god's name. It's the latter toxic memes, building on that Manichean duality, which if strongly held, provide the impetus for violence.

It's also worth noting that this bears more than a passing resemblance to common accounts of fascism, partiularly that of Umberto Eco. The difference is simply one of a religious, rather than nationalist, motivation.

Zaoui makes the case that despite the claims of western Islamophobes, Islam is not inherently extremist. Instead, his central thesis is that the religious extremism which gives rise to some forms of terrorism is born out of political repression. He illustrates this with the example of Sayyid Qutb, the founder of modern Islamism, who provided the intellectual framework for Islamic extremists' rejection of secular government. His radicalisation was a direct consequence of his persecution and mistreatment at the hands of the Egyptian government. His modern popularity and influence are partly consequences of that mistreatment (it provides a certain cachet among the young) - but also a consequence of the lack of democracy in the Islamic world. Dissatisfaction and oppression drive people to extremism, and Islamic socieites are no different from Western ones in that regard.

How should we respond to the threat of violent extremism? Zaoui's solution is to tackle the problem at its source:

Extremists cannot function effectively and credibly in an open democratic society. Extremists ideologies only carry weight when proponents are seen to be marginalised and persecuted. Exposed to the full glare of public scrutiny and debate, extremist ideologies tend to be moderated and ‘absorbed’ into the system in the interests of pragmatic political compromise.

Or they simply wither and die, or are reduced to a tiny minority incapable of causing serious trouble. The National Front are a perfect example of this - in an open society where their ideas are subjected to criticism, they cannot gain a foothold.

What is needed then is a commitment to greater democracy, and to fostering a dialogue on the shape of modern Islamic socieites. It may take longer, but will be far more effective than tanks and bombs and further repression.

15 comments:

yeah, good analysis, but i wonder about the growth of both fundamentalism and extremism in the US, which purports to be a democratic paragon.

there, christians often claim to be a persecuted minority, which aligns with zaoui's argument, but obviously aren't (another example is the destiny church, which makes a big deal about the 'neglected family', when the state is investing millions in that very institution). moreover, they've harnessed the democratic system to place their people in positions of power, like the white house.

where does that leave democracy in the middle east? after all, christian democracy good, islamic demcracy all too often bad?

Posted by che tibby : 7/08/2005 04:30:00 PM

I think the perception of persecution is often as important as the reality. And the religious right in America certainly feel persecuted by not being able to force everyone to behave as they want them to (as do some here).

They're also able to defeat the democratic discourse by intellectual insularity. They're large enough (and rich enough) to have their own network of TV, radio, and print media outlets, which constantly reinforces that message that they are a persecuted minority. And they homeschool, further insulating themselves against intellectual contact with mainstream society. In short, it's the cult outlook, only on a far wider scale and with a broader message.

The rise of the religious right in the US is an example of how extremists can colonise and subvert a democracy from within. But they're having to fight very hard to do so (and their success is aided by the fact that a large proportion of Americans have basically given up on politics completely). As for the Middle East, I'd rather they at least had the chance to reject extremism, rather than watch it inevitably grow under repression.

Posted by Idiot/Savant : 7/08/2005 08:52:00 PM

Some sane posts at last after the London bombing.

I had thought that the anti-Islam vitrole had dissipated at last. I was so wrong.

Reading soome of the stuff that gets posted borders on making me physically sick, it is so reactionary.

The question your post raises in my mind is "What if we drop the religious tag i.e. is there a fundamentalist superset of extremism in other areas e.g. politics?" It raises some taxonomy issues but I wonder if some of the extremist reactions to the bombings are reflection of some other type of fundamentalism or something altogether different.

Posted by He-Hole-ad : 7/08/2005 10:00:00 PM

oh yes, but for the embarassing little fact that all islamofascists are muslim, another 50 innocent people have been murdered and some idiot feels sick at having it pointed out.

When the million muslim march turns up to express outrage at terrorism, when terrorists are turned over to the authorities by the muslim community, and when fellow-travellers stop lauding fascists like Zaouai and start waking up to what his Government advocated and represented, then maybe you have a point.

I havent seen any radical anglicans or presbyterians cutting off heads on the internet yet- nor have i seen any pentacostals doing this - did i blink and miss it?

This is not about the religious right - this is about islamist fundamentalism and their desire to colonise and subjugate our culture - by force. Which bit of that is hard to understand?

Posted by gazzadelsud : 7/09/2005 12:06:00 PM

Damn straight gazzadelsud. T

he sooner we realise this and stop bleating about affording the mullahs the "benefits of tolerance and diversity" that there is no way they would afford to infidel non believeres then the better.

Not all muslims are terrorists but just about every terroist act is now committed in the name of islam.

Bleat about the IRA acting for catholics but remember that the aim of the IRA was to remove the British resence in Northern Ireland - the aim of the Muslim Terrorist is to subjgate the West under Sharia Law.

Posted by Hobbo : 7/09/2005 12:44:00 PM

Looks to me like the last two posters have missed the point of the original, and are confusing 'fundamentalism' and 'extremism', a dangerous misinterpretation which can lead to reactionary backlash of the worst kind.

Posted by Anonymous : 7/09/2005 01:15:00 PM

gosh "dangerous misinterpretations"

imagine confusing extremism with fundamentalism, tut, how gauche.

can you cut someone's head off with a blunt misinterpretation?

How about decent normal people deciding that fanatical (nay even extremist) terrorists are probably not a good thing to have around - and noticing that nearly all of them belong to a religious sect which condones their behaviour, and to a religious community which at best hides and tolerates the perpetrators, and at worst assists and succours them.

which part of that represents a "dangerous misinterpretation"

what is it with some of you people, this is not a debate about etymology.

Nor have i noticed ravening mobs of pentecostals imprisoning, lynching or even forcing their beliefs on social democrats - why are you guys so scared of Christians?

A final thought, given that MSM media tilts strongly democratic, does this mean that liberal thinking represents a cult seeking to impose its moral standards on the rest of the community. I note that it is rich enough to have access to its own media (NYT, LAT, WAPO, CBS, Newsweek, NPR, and in New Zealand most journos, TVNZ and NatRad). This sect also specialises in feeling persecuted and in congregating in intellectually insular groups(Daily Kos, Indymedia, Moveon.org anyone) given that it fits the diagnosis - could it be that these "social democrats" are seeking to impose their views and values on the rest of (dare I say it mainstream) society.

Sorry idiot, I do think your analysis is a bit superficial and deserves to be deconstructed. However, i appreciate I am below an acceptable standard of civility.

I am having a cranky kind of day... bit worried about some friends and my partner who is/are in London, and finding that the centre-left bloggers are deliberately avoiding identifying a few truths about what's going on. I'll stop hogging your comment space now.

Posted by gazzadelsud : 7/09/2005 04:57:00 PM

"...all islamofascists are muslim..." Yes, well, the "Islam" part of Islamofascists is of course something of a giveaway.

Your comment above is great analysis I/S, I wish I could put things so well.

Posted by Psycho Milt : 7/09/2005 05:19:00 PM

Gazza: Zaoui's analysis is about how the toxic memes that inspire and justify terrorism take hold and spread - it is epidemiology, not justification. But in a way, it is also strategy - because if you want to actually defeat terrorism (rather than simply fight it), then you need to deal ultimately with the ideas that inspire it.

Bluntly, you cannot defeat an idea by bombing it or killing people. You can only defeat it by convincing people to stop believing it. This takes time, and it doesn't fulfil the revenge fantasies so prelevant on the right, but it is the only way we will win in the end.

(And to point out the bleeding obvious, because I'm sure that its not obvious enough for people like you and Hobbo: no, this does not mean I think we should just sit down with perpetrators of Thursday's indiscriminate murder for a nice cup of tea and a chat. I want them found, caught, tried, and if convicted, sentenced to very long jail terms - because that is how you deal with murderers. But repaying indiscriminate murder with indiscriminate murder - as people have been suggesting elsewhere - would not just be a crime; it would be a mistake).

Posted by Idiot/Savant : 7/10/2005 12:46:00 AM

the reaction of people like hobbes and gazza are exactly what i fretted about on friday. when you boil it all down there's little difference between the fools who planted these bombs and fools who react in exactly the way the bombers wanted you to. both are little versions of racist insanity.

the best reaction i read on friday was from an ex-flatmate who's a born and bred londoner. his comment was "me? alright mate. bombs? no worse than the fucking IRA".

radical christians murdering innocents? how 'bout those catholics ay?

Posted by che tibby : 7/10/2005 09:15:00 AM

anyhow, as far as the content of what zaoui actually said, it is an interesting dichotomy between extremism and fundamentalism. i downloaded the text and read it on friday avo.

but, the slippage between the two is a little too superficial. from memory, it's almost like what determines extremism is largely subjective. personally i think that destiny are extremists, because they have the potential to become much more than simply fundamentalist.

and this is taking place in a open and democratic society. do you think that maybe what zaoui is advocating is a little too normatively skewed to a pro-democratic goal?

there's little to say that you couldn't have an open civil society that allows ideas to be aired and disproven without the pedagogical concerns?

Posted by che tibby : 7/10/2005 09:21:00 AM

fair point I/S. However I have to point out that the revenge fantasists are not those of the right, but are rather the stock in trade of the islamofascists themselves.

I haven't advocated revenge personally, but I am interested in a very cold headed assessment of just what it takes to persuade people who think killing me is required by their god, that this is really not quite cricket.

On Zaoui, i remain astonished that you give him any credence. He is a fascist from a fascist regime - I remind you that the apologists for fascism are always urbane and reasonable - "moderate" even. Von Ribbentrop for example was always considered most cultured and charming, this does not change the nature of the regime he represented.

Posted by gazzadelsud : 7/10/2005 12:18:00 PM

Zaoui's "regime" never came to power, as his victory in democratic elections resulted in an immediate military coup. He's currently seeking asylum from the torturers and murderers currently in charge of his home country.

Democracy is only part of the equation. Destiny's following comes primarily from people who are disempowered economically rather than politically, but the effect is the same.

As for who's committing the most terrorism - far, _far_ more muslims have been killed by westerners than vice versa in the last few years. For some reason, the media just doesn't label indiscriminate bombing and shooting as terrorism if it's being carried out by people in uniform under the name of the christian (or jewish) god.

Posted by Commie Mutant Traitor : 7/10/2005 01:05:00 PM

yeah, the diference there commie is that if you're wearing a snappy uniform it isn't murder, it's warfare.

of course, explain that to the guys who know they'll never get a military as large as the US. what other option do they have?

Posted by che tibby : 7/11/2005 08:18:00 AM

Hey I'm not going to let you get away with that.
Despite some people showing paranoia, ...more Muslims are killed by muslims than non-muslims. The countries have mounted wars against each other and inside against opposition people, political prisoners etc.
when you do your research. You will find that 3000 mostly non muslims killed in the WTC is nothing to 1000s killed in demonstrations, 200,000 gassed kurds, millions killed in the Iran /Iraq war and on an on

One injustice is one too many.
one death is one too many lets work together for peace

Posted by Anonymous : 2/06/2006 09:14:00 PM