Sunday, 6 December 2015

The Concept of Extremism and the Illusion of Deviance

Another day and another atrocity committed by Muslims. No-one suspected that he/she would do such a thing; he/she seemed to be getting along with us OK; he/she was quiet and hard-working; he/she fitted in well albeit in rather removed manner,  etc. Then of course there are the empty assertions that those committing violence in the name of Islam are not real Muslims. But how often have we also been told that jihadists became more devout and observant Muslims prior to their carnage?

These observations raise all sorts of questions about how representative the jihadists are. Western governments have chosen to frame the problem in terms of “violent extremism”. There are also signs of a willingness to examine “radicalisation”, understood as a passage from moderation to extremism.
I think that framing the discussion in these terms masks a fundamental reality and creates a misleading illusion.

Take the concept of “extremism”: what is meant by this? It is obviously related to the idea of an extreme but an extreme of what? Do extremists have extreme beliefs? Do they take their religion to extremes? Why should that be a problem if the religious beliefs are benign?

We can begin looking at this question in terms of a normal distribution curve.

In a population there is a typical pattern of an attribute such as intelligence which forms what is known as a normal distribution. Most people will be clustered around the mean since by far the majority have neither a very high nor a very low intelligence. Very high and very low IQ occurs much less frequently in the population and these are represented by the small tails at each side of the curve.

So we talk about a small percentage of people being extremely intelligent or extremely unintelligent.

When we talk about religious extremism we are thinking about something similar. In the case of Muslim extremism, we think of the majority of Muslims being clustered around the mean as a normal distribution would suggest. This majority represent “moderation” or averageness of some sort. This perception creates an illusion that the majority hold some form of moderate belief as opposed to the beliefs held by those at the extreme.

In reality, the normal distribution does not form around the nature of the beliefs, it forms around the commitment to the beliefs. Commitment consists of two main factors: knowledge and fervour. The more committed believer has a good knowledge of the beliefs and a greater motivation to live them out.

Knowledge: In spite of attempts to portray jihadists as ignorant of their faith it is evident that they usually understand the tenets of their religion very well.

Examples:
  1. There is ample justification for taking sex slaves in Islam since Muhammad himself did it, see here.
  2. Ayatollah says the destruction of churches and abducting women is real Islam, see here.
  3. The principal center of Sunni Islam cannot denounce ISIS since they are implementing what is taught at Al-Azhar, see here.
  4. Islamic intolerance is logical, see here.
Fervour: Fervour supplies the emotional passion to cross the boundary into self-transcendence. To put oneself totally at the service of one’s God as elucidated in the particular revelation to which one subscribes involves an emotional commitment of the whole self.

To illustrate nature of religious commitment, I’d like to relate the story of Antoinette Bourignon and I will quote at length from William James’ Varieties of Religious Experience. Though not a believer myself I have had periods of spiritual striving during my life and particularly love the story of Antoinette Bourignon because it illustrates so clearly the process of total self-surrender that is typical of religion at the extreme. [I’ve picked out some words which I think are crucial to our understanding in bold]

“…there is, in the desire of not having, something profounder still, something related to that fundamental mystery of religious experience, the satisfaction found in absolute surrender to the larger power. So long as any secular safeguard is retained, so long as any residual prudential guarantee is clung to, so long the surrender is incomplete, the vital crisis is not passed, fear still stands sentinel, and mistrust of the divine obtains: we hold by two anchors, looking to God, it is true, after a fashion, but also holding by our proper machinations. In certain medical experiences we have the same critical point to overcome. A drunkard, or a morphine or cocaine maniac, offers himself to be cured. He appeals to the doctor to wean him from his enemy, but he dares not face blank abstinence. The tyrannical drug is still an anchor to windward: he hides supplies of it among his clothing; arranges secretly to have it smuggled in in case of need. Even so an incompletely regenerate man still trusts in his own expedients. His money is like the sleeping potion which the chronically wakeful patient keeps beside his bed; he throws himself on God, but if he should need the other help, there it will be also. Everyone knows cases of this incomplete and ineffective desire for reform - drunkards whom, with all their self-reproaches and resolves, one perceives to be quite unwilling seriously to contemplate never being drunk again! Really to give up anything on which we have relied, to give it up definitely, “for good and all” and forever, signifies one of those radical alterations of character which came under our notice in the lectures on conversion. In it the inner man rolls over into an entirely different position of equilibrium, lives in a new centre of energy from this time on, and the turning-point and hinge of all such operations seems usually to involve the sincere acceptance of certain nakednesses and destitutions.

Accordingly, throughout the annals of the saintly life, we find this ever-recurring note: Fling yourself upon God’s providence without making any reserve whatever – take no thought for the morrow – sell all you have and give it to the poor – only when the sacrifice is ruthless and reckless will the higher safety really arrive [my italics].  As a concrete example let me read a page from the biography of Antoinette Bourignon, a good woman, much persecuted in her day by both Protestants and Catholics, because she would not take her religion at second hand. When a young girl, in her father’s house:

She spent whole nights in prayer, oft repeating: ‘Lord, what wilt thou have me to do?’ And being one night in a most profound penitence, she said from the bottom of her heart: ‘O my Lord! What must I do to please thee? For I have nobody to teach me. Speak to my soul and it will hear thee.’ At that instant she heard, as if another had spoke within her: Forsake all earthly things. Separate thyself from the love of the creatures. Deny thyself. She was quite astonished, not understanding this language, and mused long on these three points, thinking how she could fulfil them. She thought she could not live without earthly things, nor without loving the creatures, nor without loving herself. Yet she said, ‘By thy Grace I will do it, Lord!’ But when she would perform her promise, she knew not where to begin. Having thought on the religious in monasteries, that they forsook all earthly things by being shut up in a cloister, and the love of themselves by subjecting of their wills, she asked leave of her father to enter into a cloister of the barefoot Carmelites, but he would not permit it, saying he would rather see her laid in her grave. This seemed to her a great cruelty, for she thought to find in the cloister the true Christians she had been seeking, but she found afterwards that he knew the cloisters better than she; for after he had forbidden her, and told her he would never permit her to be a religious, nor give her any money to enter there, yet she went to Father Laurens, the Director, and offered so serve in the monastery and work hard for her bread, and be content with little, if he would receive her. At which he smiled and said: That cannot be. We must have money to build; we take no maids without money; you must find the way to get it, else there is no entry here.
This astonished her greatly, and she was thereby undeceived as to the cloisters, resolving to forsake all company and live alone till it should please God to show her what she ought to do and whither to go. She asked always earnestly, ‘When shall I be perfectly thine, O my God?’ And she thought he still answered her, When thou shalt no longer possess anything and shalt die to thyself. ‘And where shall I do that, Lord?’ He answered her, In the desert. This made so strong an impression on her soul that she aspired after this; but being a maid of eighteen years only, she was afraid of unlucky chances, and was never used to travel, and knew no way. She laid aside all these doubts and said, ‘Lord, thou wilt guide me how and where it shall please thee. It is for thee that I do it. I will lay aside my habit of a maid, and will take that of a hermit that I may pass unknown.’ Having then secretly made ready this habit, while her parents thought to have married her, her father having promised her to a rich French merchant, she prevented the time, and on Easter evening, having cut her hair, put on the habit, and slept a little, she went out of her chamber about four in the morning, taking nothing but one penny to buy bread for that day. And it being said to her in going out, Where is thy faith? In a penny? She threw it away, begging pardon of God for her fault, and saying, ‘No, Lord, my faith is not in a penny, but in thee alone.’ Thus she went away wholly delivered from the heavy burden of the cares and good things of this world, and she found her soul so satisfied that she no longer wished for anything upon earth, resting entirely upon God, with this only fear lest she should be discovered and be obliged to return home; for she felt already more content in this poverty than she had done all her life in all the delights of the world.
 The penny was a small financial safeguard, but an effective spiritual obstacle. Not till it was thrown away could the character settle in to the new equilibrium completely.” (Varieties of Religious Experience - from the chapter called "Saintliness")


Antoinette Bourignon

This story of religious devotion and self-surrender takes us so beautifully to the crucial point where the true believer throws herself totally into the arms of God.

Antoinette was by all accounts an extremist. She took her religion to the extreme. She wanted to establish a community of what she saw as true Christians. It was her view that only “true Christians” would be saved and she was – according to her convictions – obliged by God to gather these true Christians. She succeeded in establishing a number of small communes and a girls’ orphanage. Her writings, containing an account of her life, her visions and opinions, were collected after her death and published in 21 volumes in Amsterdam. (Wikepedia gives some details of her life)

There are many aspects of her character which are not entirely attractive but in terms of knowledge of her religion, courage in her convictions, and religious fervour she scores highly. This is extremism in a Christian context.

The jihadist goes through a similar process of reaching total commitment, it's just that the creed he follows is a very different one to the Christian.

Unlike Christianity, Islam stoops to some gross material inducements to get the believer to make the final commitment:

  • The promise of unconditional entry to paradise
  • The pardoning of all sins
  • The promise of endless sexual gratification
  • Wine and endless physical pleasure in various forms
Although there are parallels between the martyrdom of the jihadist and the self-surrender of the Christian saint the act of self-surrender is undertaken on very different terms; terms which subvert any pretence to spirituality. Where the Christian is urged to leap into the abyss with no guarantee of anything, the Muslim is lured by the attractions of carnal pleasures. 

The extreme religious commitment demonstrated by the Christian saint takes place in a Christian context. Ultimately the saint becomes a living witness and example of divine love.

But the jihadist, acting in an Islamic context, demonstrates his willingness to be hoodwinked by means of promised inducements in the afterlife, to sacrifice himself in the vicious cause of worldly conquest.

His act lacks the poignant courage and sincerity so evident in the experience of Antoinette Bourignon and he falls prey to fanatical self-destruction for other-worldly personal gain.

In each of these cases we see extremism, the willingness to take matters to the extreme; the willingness to surrender oneself totally to the call of God, as understood differently in each context. But the teachings in each case are very different.

In each case, the “extremists” are outliers on the top side of the normal distribution of religious fervour. When politicians and members of the media talk of extremism they talk in terms of a measure with no context.

It’s as if they are saying, “that person scores extremely high on the scale” but they don’t say what the scale is or what it means. They talk emptily of “extremism”.

What they should be saying is that extremists show a high level of commitment to their belief system and that because the Islamic belief system teaches unending warfare against unbelievers and unbelief (kufr), they engage in violence, intimidation, and coercion to bring about world conformity to their concept of divine law (Sharia).

Without this clarification people are likely to see the behaviour of the extremists as unrepresentative of the religion whereas the opposite is true. The most committed Muslims are the most contemptuous toward non-Muslims; the most violent towards them; and the most willing to die whilst fighting and killing them. This is summed up well in the motto of the Muslim Brotherhood:
Allah is our objective; the Prophet is our leader; the Quran is our law; Jihad is our way; dying in the way of Allah is our highest hope.

This is why the term “extremist” can so easily create the illusion of deviance. Those most committed and in conformity with the beliefs are treated as if they are deviating from them because they are not the majority.

Instead, the majority at the centre of the normal distribution are taken to be more representative of the belief system than the outliers; in turn, those non-believers who oppose the belief system are seen as opposing the majority of Muslims which has the ironic effect of bringing the “extremist” label upon themselves. This creates a second illusion of deviance.

A better way of framing this debate would be to talk of commitment and conformity to belief. For anyone willing to look facts in the face (not a high number these days I appreciate) there is a clear set of Islamic beliefs and doctrines. Individual Muslims’ willingness to conform to these vary along a scale.

Scale of commitment to Islamic beliefs among those identifying as Muslim



Under a normal distribution of commitment to belief we would expect to see this pattern where the majority of the observed population have scores in the middle range. There are of course other scenarios where the population is skewed towards higher or lower commitment.

I am aware the there are many questions I could raise about the nature of moderation or moderates with regard to a religion based on the example and teachings of a mass murderer such as Muhammad but I wanted to avoid creating too many diversionary lines of thought. My main aim here has been to show how misleading the term "extremism" can be.

The term "extremist" is being used to describe those most in favor of worldwide Sharia and those most opposed to it. This nonsense can only end when people realize that the so-called extremists are those who know the truth about Islam; the one being fully in favor, the other being wholly against.

In summary, "extremism" is an empty term devoid of context. It is often has the effect of equating people who are extremely good with people who are extremely bad; of conflating those acting according to a benign creed with those acting according to a malefic one. The jihadist is an extremist but someone on the extreme end of a scale of religious commitment; one who is fully committed to the creed of Islam, a complete Muslim. The description of "extremist" has the effect of suggesting that the jihadist is deviating from the creed of Islam whereas he represents its fullest realization. Not only that but those most committed to opposing the malevolence of Islam become demonized as extremists themselves.



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