Extremism, not Islam, Is the Enemy

31 March 2016
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By George Wolfe

On September 21, 2000, at Ball State University’s week long Chautauqua entitled “UniverCity,” renown Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel spoke to a standing room only crowd in Emens Auditorium. The Freshman Connections program at Ball State had chosen his book Night to be that year’s “freshman reader.” The primary focus of Wiesel’s lecture, which still stands out vividly in my mind, remains pertinent today: the greatest enemy that we must continually battle against is fanaticism.

Initially he was speaking of the fanaticism which gave birth to fascism and the anti-Semitism that possessed the consciousness of Nazi Germany. However, it was also evident in Wiesel’s speech that fanaticism in all its forms, whether it be political, ideological, religious, or a-religious, is humanity’s real enemy.

Today the most dangerous fanaticism we hear about is taking the form of religious extremism. But responding with comparable extremism is equally as dangerous. We should recognize that a long-term solution to our societal dilemmas must include resisting fanaticism is all its forms.

On the opposite end of the religious spectrum is atheistic extremism. While many people are quick to blame religious fanaticism for wars, they forget that it was Joseph Stalin who propagated the genocidal crimes of atheistic communism where millions were executed as “enemies of the people.” And how many killers have there been who, after committing mass murder, turn the gun on themselves out of the belief there will be nothing to hold them accountable for their actions after they die?

The various forms of extremist views, be they religious or secular, are rooted in fear and the inability to accept people who are different from ourselves. Extremist ideologies help us justify our fears. They are embraced by people who are prone to adolescent dualist thinking which proclaims that they are right and everyone else is wrong. The long-term remedy is to take an approach to education and parenting that questions absolute conclusions and recognizes the inherent limitations of competing viewpoints.

We also must come to understand the role poverty, desperation, and lack of equal opportunity play in giving rise to ideologies that create suicide bombers. At the 2015 Parliament of World Religions in Salt Lake City, it was an Islamic speaker who said that the most dangerous person in the world is someone who has nothing to live for. Out of that condition spawns the hatred and resentment toward the inequality and material excesses found in Western culture.

If we look at the areas of the world where terrorism first festered and grew, it was in countries plagued by abject poverty that were ignored by developed countries because they did not serve Western economic or strategic military interests.

The most effective weapons against terrorism are not military. Rather they are political, economic, and cultural. The way to advance our world and minimize the forces of fanaticism is through integration, fair trade, ethical globalization, interfaith understanding, and the enormous benefits of educational and cultural exchange.

George Wolfe is Professor Emeritus and former director of the Ball State University Center for Peace and Conflict Studies. He also chairs the Muncie Interfaith Fellowship, is a trained mediator, and the author of The Spiritual Power of Nonviolence: Interfaith Understanding for a Future Without War.