Postnormal Blues by Ziauddin Sardar and Samia Rahman
Superpowers. Of all the possible superpowers in this best of all possible worlds, which one would you most like to possess? We sought the counsel of a four-year old girl. Without hesitation she replied that she wished she could ‘make everything pink’. An extreme desire from a tender, innocent mind. Much like Greek Mythology’s King Midas, described by Aristotle as having starved to death after his superpower wish that all he touches should turn to gold is granted, the realisation of extreme fantasy often belies an ugly reality. A world devoid of all colour except pink would rapidly lose its appeal even for little girls yet to shake off cultural norms that seek to shape their colour preferences. Extremism is, after all, in the eye of the beholder. Of course, the prism through which a four-year-old views the world can be rather black and white (or pink!) and in an attempt to negotiate and reconcile themselves to the intricacies of the culture into which they have been born, the behaviour of young children – for example going into melt-down because they don’t want to eat their peas – can seem a little extreme. Yet this is their context and no amount of cajoling or consoling can divert from their reality as they perceive it at that particular moment. This is obviously a disposition the British government takes very seriously, promptly enrolling a three-year-old Muslim child from London’s Tower Hamlets onto its de-radicalisation programme amid fears the child was vulnerable to extremist influence. British prime minister David Cameron is particularly consumed by the issue, describing the fight against (Islamic) extremism as the ‘struggle of our generation’, ignoring the multitude of other ills that would benefit from a bit of superhero attention. Government guidance on counter-extremism has suggested that school teachers look out for tell-tale signs of radicalisation, such as expressing disapproval of gay marriage. Considering 128 Conservative MPs voted against the same-sex marriage bill, it would appear the PM needs to look a little closer to home. Hyperbole and hysteria resonate in these contemporary, chaotic and unfathomable times, yet it cannot be denied that in the popular imagination extremism has become synonymous with Islam. Or has Islam become synonymous with the extreme?
Extremism is both: a prized human attribute and the most despised proclivity of human nature. On the one hand, it is the propensity to endure, to strive, to achieve new heights, to go beyond what is thought possible, to break records or new ground or old fears to open new horizons of human possibilities. On the other hand, extremism can manifest itself as the depths of human depravity, the motive force of brutality, sadism, oppression, deliberate barbarism visited on designated dehumanised victims that defies the norms of what we fondly term as humanity. In either case, for good or ill, extremism is us. Extremism is a quintessential human trait. In one form it is applauded, rewarded and envied; its other negative expression occasions horror and incomprehension. And there lies the rub.
It is easy to marvel at and endorse the extreme single-minded determination that characterises the positive uses of human capabilities. History is replete with examples of how athletes, explorers, inventors, entrepreneurs, writers, artists or philosophers have been and are honoured, held up as the finest examples of human potential because they dare to go to extremes. In the extremes of their endeavour such ground-breakers give us intimations of the perfectibility of humankind. And yet we recoil from and seek to disown the innumerable instances history affords where unwavering determination has and does drive individuals and groups to extremes in pursuit of their vision of perfection because it usually embraces a virulent, deliberate violence bent on the eradication of anything or more significantly anyone that fails to conform to or comply with their ideals.
Wonder at the achievements garnered by the extremes of positive genius belonging to all of humankind, they exemplify ‘us’ at our best. Somehow this ready pride does not equate with the incomprehension we reserve for the destructive potency of evil genius. The positive is human, the negative we would rather term inhuman. We are unwilling to say the evil of such extremism is of us and within us, a common shared human capacity though history argues no age or society is immune. Virulent extremism with all its brutal absolutist horrors always occasions simplistic explanations that sidestep, deny or obscure acceptance of a human component that has anything to do with normality. In short we search for scapegoats – forces over and beyond that make people do inhuman things. The focus is drawn to religion and ideology as forces that make people act as brutes to their fellow human beings; forces that define and divide ‘in’ groups and ‘out’ groups and order their relationships and thereby explain what makes bad things happen.
Bad things happened in Paris in January and again in November 2015. The horrific attacks on the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, and coordinated terrorist attacks throughout the city that killed 130 people, prompted endless discussion on ‘Islamic extremism’. It was, with few exceptions, one-dimensional and simplistic; and it reflected the worldview of the extremists themselves. In his book Understanding Comics, which is drawn in the form of a comic and features the author as one of the cartoon characters, American cartoonist and comics theorist Scott McCloud argues that the essence of comics is iconic abstraction. He explains how this medium boils everything down to its icon image. The result is that a lamp looks like a lamp and is not ornate or embellished. A jaw is chiselled, colours are bright, and there is no need for detail or delineation. It could be argued that this is how both those who occupy extreme fringes perceive the world and those who are horrified by their actions see the world. Their understanding of everything around them is condensed into iconic abstractions.
Iconic individuals often become the personification of good and evil. Consider, for example, the saintly Aung San Suu Kyi. Here is a democrat standing up to military dictators, a fighter for human rights who has suffered fifteen years of house arrest. For her troubles, she has garnered numerous honours and prizes, including in 1991, the Nobel Prize for Peace. She has even been lionised in a feature film – The Lady (2011). This woman can do no wrong. Yet, if she is not advocating she is at least complicit by her active silence in the perpetuation of a stark evil: the brutal oppression of the Rohingya people in Myanmar, whose only crime is that they are in a minority. She does not regard them as citizens of Myanmar despite the fact that they have been living in the Rakhine State of Burma (as it was then known) since the sixteenth century. She refused to say anything when the Rohingya were being burnt alive and driven from their homes by Buddhist fanatics even cautioning journalists not to ‘exaggerate’ the plight of these wretched people. Her party actively discourages Muslim candidates. Still, the honours and garlands continue.
Suu Kyi is a Theravada Buddhist. It is worth noting how the contemporary West has iconised Buddhism as a superhuman religion of peace and natural harmony. Yet authoritarianism, violence and xenophobia is as evident in Buddhism as any other religion. The Zen Masters carried a samurai sword for good reasons. The founding principles of Taoism require that healing energies necessary to remedy the problems of the world be allowed to balance themselves and not be set off-kilter by human interference. The belief is that it is better to live in unquestioning harmony with the existing natural order, however difficult this may make life. But we are all too aware of what happens when an unquestioning worldview comes face to face with human nature. That’s what extremists are made of.
Religion and ideology, however reified as inflexible absolute law that must be operated, enforced and obeyed in purist perfection, nevertheless exist in history only as human interpretations, in the forms and understandings that human minds and natures conceive for them. To blame religion or ideology as the cause of extremism is to exonerate individuals and communities who implement and enact barbaric brutality in the name of God. Religion or ideology is no simple lever. They are not implacable imperatives driving groups or entire populations to unconscionable actions. How religion or ideology come to be used as rationale and justification for extremism and all the horrors people can commit in their name is far from simple and caught in the complex circumstances of time and place.
A superhero is a simple, reduced figure that becomes a symbol. And comics are the ideal medium for linear superhero narratives. Traditionally, comics were never intended to be life-like as this would require such a huge effort of artwork so as to render the task almost impossible. Many artists do not aspire to this anyway as they are more interested in the full extent of aesthetic possibilities available to them within the definitions of the genre they have chosen. From this emerges an interesting parallel between extreme political views and the iconography of comics. They are both abstracts. Comics are iconic abstractions that were never meant to be realistic, and extremists occupy a space that must never be allowed to dominate reality. The dominant narrative surrounding Islam and Muslims is preoccupied with extremes, but surely that is not the entire picture? Ivan Carromero Manzano agrees. In ‘Long Way Home’ he subverts the comic book genre by using pixel art superimposed on photography in his visual exposition of extremism as more than just polarised ends of a spectrum. He employs the small but growing trend of drawing over photographs, which has become popular as superhero comic fans increasingly favour similitude. His comic strip retains the iconic abstraction that symbolises the simplification of narrative and his characters remain abstract and indistinguishable from each other. Yet, in a deconstruction of the notion of ‘othering’, by placing the story within a context that invokes realism, Manzano’s artwork engages with the complexity of the real.
Extremists eschew complexity and insist on living a life dominated by black and white, minus all the colours of the universe. But complex reality is impossible to ignore. As both John Sweeney and Scott Jordan point out, we are living in a specific period that has been characterised as ‘postnormal times’. Our epoch, writes Jordan, is ‘characterised by 3Cs: complexity, chaos and contradictions. We live in a world where complexity is the norm, characterised by a plethora of independent parts interacting with each other in a great many ways. Everything is connected to everything else in networks upon networks that generate positive feedback that amplify things in geometric proportions leading to chaos. We thus end up with many positions that are logically inconsistent and contradictory’. In postnormal times, notes Sweeney, ‘things we take for granted become uncertain, our understanding of things can become a form of ignorance, and longstanding norms, if not the very idea of normalcy itself, break down before our very eyes’. In a globalised, highly networked, complex, contradictory and chaotic world, where uncertainty and ignorance are the dominant themes, all varieties of extremes take the central stage. Sweeney explores extreme climate change and highlights emerging terms that are being used to describe the interconnected complex phenomenon. ‘Anthropocene’ is used to emphasise the central role of humanity in shaping the geology and ecology of earth. Anthrobscene marks the ‘various violations of environmental and human life in corporate practices and technological culture that are ensuring that there won’t be much of humans in the future scene of life.’ And technopocene highlights ‘a new level of mindfulness on the part of humans for themselves and their technological offspring’. The pendulum swings from one extreme to another: so the solutions proposed for this ‘age of extreme weirding’, are themselves absurdly extreme. Geoengineering is suggested to change the climate and geology of the entire planet. Biological engineering is proposed so we have shorter, more adaptable and smarter people who can cope with the drastic changes that lie ahead.
Notice how many extremes have now become dominant themes, each containing an inherent contradiction that is not easy to resolve. Refugees, driven from wars in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, are risking their lives to get into Europe in unprecedented numbers. In certain countries, such as Hungry and Slovakia, the champions of ‘European values’ are beating, tear-gassing, and humiliating them. A video that went viral showed a female Hungarian television reporter tripping an old man who was carrying his young son in his arms and kicking a child. India, the ‘biggest democracy in the world’, is ruled by an extremist party, BJP, enthralled to a segment of society that has fascistic tendencies – the RSS. Half the population of America – mostly Republican supporters – believe that it is their fundamental right to carry guns and the only way to reduce gun crimes and mass killings is to increase the circulation of guns. ‘The 80 richest people in the world hold as much wealth as the bottom 3.5 billion, moreover, on current trends by 2016 the top one per cent of the population will hold more than half of the world’s wealth’, Benedikt Koehler points out. Corruption is not just part of the global system, it is the system itself! As Jerry Ravetz notes, ‘corruption is everywhere’ driving fantasy and greed, ‘fuelled by computers and rationalised by junk mathematics’. Indeed, Ravetz suggests, ‘the corruption of some key element of our civilisation could cause its downfall’. Western governments see terrorists everywhere, introduce draconian laws to restrict the freedoms of their own citizens, but then protect, encourage and pay homage to the incubator of extremism – Saudi Arabia. It is a country where ordinary poor Muslim workers are treated with contempt, barbaric inhumanity and exploited at every opportunity, as we discover from Rahul Jayaram’s moving story of the Indian labourer, Humsari Hussain.
Only one thing is certain in this world of rampant extremism. ‘Postnormal times (PNT) cannot be saved by Superman flying faster than the bullet or by The Matrix’s Neo accepting his being the chosen one and defeating the Agents’, writes Jordan. ‘The hero of postnormal times cannot simply defeat the bad guy or defuse the bomb, for PNT cannot be managed toward resolution. The postnormal hero is a navigator above all. This hero is challenged by the complexity of the world and our multiple selves, he is at the mercy of utter chaos, and subdued by countless contradictions. The postnormal hero is faced with taking our old conceptions, putting them to the test, and demanding that we re-educate ourselves or be doomed to fall at the hands of the true enemy – ourselves’. Which is precisely what happens to the hero of American Sniper. Our hero is Chris Kyle, the late Navy SEAL, who became iconic for killing people, ‘the most lethal sniper in American history’. His ‘higher calling’ is to kill the enemy threatening America; and his exploits make him a legend as ‘Americans long to have a symbol to stand behind like Captain America’. But the new enemy Kyle encounters is not easily identified. ‘The Communist, The Japanese, The German, all with distinguishable characteristics easily caricatured, now are usurped by a shadow. The enemy is no longer a human who can be diminished through multiple rinses of nationalism and racism. The enemy is a spectre, almost inhuman. Thus, America must also lose its humanity’. This is not an ordinary war – but an extreme one: it is not about ‘men against men, good versus evil, it is what remains of the sacred human versus Lucifer himself’. As the enemy is no longer human, ‘much like aliens in sci-fi flicks, they are simply beasts and killing them is no big deal. The other soldiers around him echo the themes of American exceptionalism, racism against the people of the Middle East, and an overall blood lust surrounds questions of good and evil, the nature of God, and the sanctity of life. All of this is a haze of white noise surrounding the cold omniscient scope’s eye that Kyle becomes’. Both in reality and in the film, Kyle loses his mind; in reality, he ‘meets his end at the hands of another twisted mental product of contemporary America’.
The deaths and destruction that western foreign polices have created in the Middle East, Afghanistan and Pakistan, are a product of the ‘twisted mental product’ that cannot cope with complexity. Indeed, defining ‘the enemy’ itself becomes a complexity problem. Just who is a ‘terrorist’ is not easy to pin down, as Gordon Steffey shows in his examination of official documents that attempt to produce a ‘Terminology to Define the Terrorists’. Is the enemy ‘Islamic’ extremism or ‘Islamist’ extremism, or ‘takfirideath cult’, or is it simply ‘violent extremism’? How does one discriminate between groups ‘claiming’ Islam and ‘extremist groups’ that use Islam for nefarious ends? How Islamic do you have to be – Islamic, very Islamic or very, very Islamic – before you become a security threat to the US of A and Europe? And how do you treat the right-wing indigenous extremists that define all of Islam as evil?
In the haze that surrounds postnormal times, ‘our’ extremists are not easy to see. Consider Charlie Hebdo. Now here is a publication that, by its own admission, practices extreme prejudice. It wallows in its particularly virulent brand of French racism and xenophobia. It goes out of its way to humiliate the powerless. It demeans immigrants. Even the iconic image of a little boy who died crossing the sea was not spared. Women kidnapped by Boko Haram to sell as sex slaves are derided. In Charlie Hebdo cartoons Jews have hooked noses, blacks have thick lips and Arabs and Muslims are always ugly, deranged, homicidal maniacs. And yet, in a display of extreme iconic abstraction the world jumped onto the ‘Je Suis Charlie’ bandwagon. It is one thing to condemn a brutal atrocity; quite another to side with racist extremists in the name of freedom of expression. Heads of state, including Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu (who is keeping the entire nation of Palestine locked up in a cage and does not hesitate to bomb them at every opportunity; and who now alleges that the Mufti of Jerusalem inspired Hitler to commit the Holocaust, thus painting the entire Muslim community as Nazi sympathisers – what could be more hideously extreme than that!), headed a march of solidarity for the victims through the streets of Paris. The Charlie Hebdo affair was stripped of any complexity. Hardly anyone looked at just how privileged this magazine is. It is published in a country where the logo of freedom of expression adorns T-shirts but where Muslim women are not free to choose what they wear. It is a country where a quarter of the population supports the extremist National Front Party.
Like much else in postnormal times, satire too is becoming extreme. Or as Samir Younés puts it, it has become mean. ‘Meanness can be developed into an art and can become accepted as an art by artists who gratify their adulating public with their personal opinions. Meanness becomes a form of entertainment that operates on the principle of the emotional elimination of the other. An increase in artistic meanness is also accompanied with an increase in the demand for such meanness. The more humour is allied with insolence, irreverence, irony, cynicism, sarcasm, mockery, sadism, and above all, iconoclasm, the more of it is needed. Intellectual meanness reaches particular effectiveness once the visual and verbal arts combine as they do in paintings and their titles, in caricatures and their captions, and especially in the ever-present empire of television’.
The economy of the media, particularly 24-hour television channels, perpetuate and multiply stereotypes at accelerating pace. Extremists always make better (blood curdling) television. In contrast, the voices of rationality appear too calm, too ordinary, too boring – not very good for the ratings. The liberals and moderates thus have little room to shape the dominant narrative that speaks for them and about them. For many years in Britain, Anjem Choudary, leader of Al-Muhajiroun, was presented as the voice of British Muslims despite being an extreme figure and far from representative of the majority voice. Yet his radical views were allowed to shape the perception of Muslims in wider British society. In the US, the Fox Network specialises in airing extreme views and thus has the highest ratings. In postnormal times, extremism has a natural tendency to attract attention and perpetuate itself.
This is why hatred of Muslims has now become the new normal. Islamophobia is now the prerogative of all. It is not unusual for Muslims to be abused on buses, tubes and on the streets of Britain. In October 2015, a video went viral showing the abusive, expletive-ridden and Islamophobic tirade of a black British woman against a pregnant hijab-wearing woman on a London bus. As Joseph Harker noted in The Guardian, ‘when a black woman can stand in a bus and tell someone, without irony, to “go back to their own country” it shows how deeply embedded the hatred of Muslims has become in our society. The media, and everyone else, have a duty to do everything they can to counter it’. Yet it is exactly the media that stokes extreme reactions to Muslims, compounding a multitude of negative messages in popular culture. The award-winning US series Homeland, now in its fifth series, has long been accused of stereotyping Muslims either as terrorists or potential terrorists and employing simplistic conflations in its portrayal of complex conflicts within the Muslim world that would be laughable if they weren’t so dangerous. They are insidious because, for many viewers, this is not pure drama, it is the medium through which their attitudes towards Muslims are informed. In an attempt to make Homeland’s Berlin set mirror a Syrian refugee camp, the show’s producers asked Arab street artists to scrawl Arabic slogans on the wall. Knowing full well that no one on the set cared a jot for complexity and substance, as long as it all looked superficially plausible, they produced graffiti that translated as ‘Homeland is racist’ ‘#Blacklivesmatter’ and ‘Homeland is a joke and it didn’t make us laugh’. It was a brazen and ingenious act of political photobombing subversion. Heba Amin, one of the street artists, wrote in her blog that for Homeland’s producers, ‘Arabic script is merely a supplementary visual that completes the horror-fantasy of the Middle East, a poster image dehumanising an entire region to human-less figures in black burkas and moreover, this season, to refugees. The show has thus created a chain of causality with Arabs at its beginning and as its outcome – their own victims and executioners at the same time’.
So while we condemn the bloodthirsty rampage of the Kouachi brothers, we should comprehend what drove them to such extreme actions. French citizens of Algerian descent, their marginalised, gruelling lives of economic malaise and disaffection had barely been touched by Islamism while growing up in the secular French care system. They burst out of the Charlie Hebdo office declaring ‘the Prophet is avenged’. Yet, they hardly knew anything about the Prophet; their actions would have made him weep bitterly. For the vast majority of sensible, rational Muslims watching the unfolding horror on the television and social media, such reactionary violence carried out in the name of love was unfathomable.
Yet, the love of the Prophet has itself become a complex issue, taking on an extreme dimension. It is, as Raza Ali says, a strange kind of love. The Prophet, who is described in the Qur’an as ‘but a mortal’ and ‘a human being as a messenger’ (17:93-94), and who himself insisted that as a human being he could not perform superhuman miracles, is elevated to unimaginable horizons – his name is said to have been written on the Throne of God, his light was created even before the universe, and he is above all other Prophets. His physical appearance, his dress, his habits, his everyday behaviour in seventh century Arabia, is to be imitated, even the length of his beard has to be matched exactly. Ali argues that the mythology surrounding the Prophet has existed for centuries. But its extreme manifestations began after 9/11. It is a love that makes people judgemental, inflexible, irrational and even drives them to murder other people. But it is a love that ‘directly contradicts the many documented examples of the Prophet’s humanity, forgiveness and humility. The kindness, patience, humility, forgiveness, and affection for others and nature, he reportedly exemplified, is not part of this love’. It is a love that ultimately deprives the lovers of their own humanity. It may be love ‘of’ the Prophet but it is not the love that he radiated.
Love of any kind is also absent amongst Muslims in their propensity to rush to judgement. Extremists perpetually judge other Muslims: they seem to have an inbuilt imanometer that measures people’s faith (iman). Everyone’s iman is found wanting, it just does not reach the level required on the imanometer. Either their dogmas (aquida) are wrong, or their ritual practices are not correct, or their attire (in the case of women) or facial furniture (in the case of men) is not suitable. If they are unable to find any other shortcoming, then the fact that they have a smile on their face or are a bit happy is enough to deride them. At least that is what Samia Rahman discovered when she examined the furore surrounding the ‘Happy Muslims’ video. It was made by a group called The Honesty Policy and uploaded on YouTube in April 2014. It upset many Muslims to see other Muslims, men and women, dancing happily to a pop tune. ‘An unhappy theme of many discussions’ on the video, Rahman notes, ‘was the disproportionate scrutiny directed at the female participants’, which degenerated into gross misogyny. The participants were accused by some of being reactive and apologetic. Anti-Muslim segments of the social media accused the participants of being sympathetic to extremism and radicalisation. That the makers of the Happy video chose to remain anonymous became an unwelcome sideshow. It fed into an unease, writes Rahman, that has ‘rendered activists from all denominations and those with even a whiff of a public profile hyper-paranoid about a hidden agenda of those they may be seen with, share a platform with, and even happen to be photographed walking past. Among Muslim groups there is the indelible taint that comes with becoming involved, even fleetingly or tenuously, with an organisation that is suspected, never mind proven, to be funded by the government or some other objectionable entity. The polarisation between those for and against the counter-terrorism machine has created a groundswell of conspiracy theories buzzing around any and every new initiative. The consequence is a scramble to ensure one is hermetically sealed from possible exposure to designated toxic individuals that reputations could not possibly survive association’.
The extremes that even an innocuous attempt to portray Muslims in a humorous and joyful light can generate is an indication that we are never more than a hair’s breath from extremism becoming normal in postnormal times. In any complex, interconnected situation, positive feedback ensures that extreme positions multiply geometrically and take off exponentially. To really understand such situations, we need to appreciate their complex contexts – not just the complex present, but also the historic trends, the impact of geopolitical actors then and now, and the composite reality on the ground. This is what Anne Alexander attempts in her analysis of ISIS – the mythical movement that has moved with the speed of Superman to occupy great swathes of the Levant as well as the darkest recesses of our imaginations. The question on everyone’s lips is who are ISIS, how have they come to dominate the political landscape of the Middle East, and what can be done about this unstoppable powerhouse of nightmares. Alexander takes us back to the 2003 Iraq War, which greatly amplified the sense of injustice, particularly at the hands of the West, that must be acknowledged for its role in destabilising an entire region and providing seemingly just cause for extremists. The inability of the allies to comprehend the complex sectarian make-up of Iraq and the provocation of Shia-Sunni tensions by their favoured Prime Minister, Nouri al-Maliki, laid the foundations for the birth of ISIS. It is not just the failure to acknowledge the legitimacy of grievance, Alexander makes clear, but the suppression of such sentiment alongside the promotion of the narrative that grievance is a mere vehicle for terrorism, that has brought us to this cataclysm. ISIS turns out to be a useful iconic abstraction that serves the purpose of Western powers in the war against terror: ‘both Western leaders and their local allies in the Middle East present the struggle with ISIS as an existential battle for survival in which there are only two sides. Stripped of their rhetoric invoking the defence of Western civilisation, or appeals to national unity, their message boils down to a simple ultimatum: “It is either them or us”. For Cameron, Hollande and Merkel as for Sisi, the only alternative to ISIS is the strong state: in Europe this means sharpening legal instruments for the surveillance and coercion of not only Muslim citizens, but potentially anyone who dares to depart from the prepared narrative of fighting “extremism” and “radicalisation”’. In his review of Arun Kundnani’s astute book The Muslims are Coming, Talat Ahmed reinforces Alexander’s assertion that experience of the war on terror has been significant in the rise and rise of extremist ideology. The normalisation of anti-Muslim discourse along with entrenchment of Islamophobia has further accelerated the spread of extremism.
There is, of course, the other side of the equation. Muslims themselves, and how they interpret Islam, are also responsible for perpetuating extremism. It is not enough for Muslims to blithely repeat that Islam is a religion of peace and hope that all the problems will just go away. We need to question the dogma that serves as a springboard for extremist thought and action; and tackle the historical precedents for extremism in Islamic tradition. By denying the existence of dogma you remove the ability to challenge it from within the historical traditions it claims to originate. The urgent task that faces all Muslims is to root out the extremist ideology within Islam that presents Islam as unchanging and static and threatens to become the norm. Farouk Peru describes this extremist ideology as ‘Islamofascism’. A consequence of the supremacy of absolutist dogma in Islamic discourse, he writes, ‘Islamofascism is not essentially Islamic but rather an interpretation by the Islamofascists themselves. There are elements within the Islamic tradition which this group choose to ignore or downplay ostensibly because of their potential to undo the system of teachings they promote’. Peru argues that the social construction of the Sharia or the subjectivity of hadith literature is not adequately acknowledged, and has become entrenched in the teaching and practise of Islam today. The Sharia supports ‘Islamofascism by legislating against any kind of activity which would undermine their integrity. The system deters Muslims and non-Muslims from disturbing the status quo of the power structure, denying everyone under its influence the basic freedom of thought’. The hadith literature was written retroactively and the events it describes ‘did not actually occur as the hadith literature tells us but rather reflected the political tendencies of the Muslim community of later periods, which needed the legitimacy of the companions in order to validate their particular dogma’. A great deal of hadith was manufactured to justify a particular dogma or political position. Together the hadith and Sharia have created ‘a framework of doctrines’ to which all must adhere; this body of sacred knowledge, ‘contained within the corpus of Islamic tradition’, ‘strikes awe in the typical Muslim mind. The power of the monopoly on the only acceptable truth dissuades, even intimidates, believers from thinking for themselves and challenging prevailing opinion’. Only by dismantling this framework, and the power of the theological elite and challenging their ‘knowledge fascism’, Peru suggests, can extremist ideology be confounded.
One particular characteristic of extremists is their belief that history begins and ends with the arrival of the Prophet Muhammad. Nothing that happened before – the period of ignorance (jihaliya) – or since is of much significance. Hence, their propensity to destroy archaeological sites, cultural property and anything else that they deem as representative of unbelief – including the history and cultural property of the sacred city of Mecca itself. Hence the destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas by the Taliban, the ransack of Timbuktu by Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), and the massive destruction of heritage and cultural property, including Palmyra, by ISIS. But, once again, this is not a perversion that is simply limited to Muslims. In ‘Statues of Identity’, Elma Berisha contemplates the significance of religious artefacts and the intrinsic relationship between cultural heritage and the affirmation of identity. As she tours the symbolic temples and statues of South East Asia she is reminded of the single-minded effort to destroy archaeological and cultural artefacts by Serbian militants as they sought to eradicate non-Serbian iconography from Bosnia and Albania. While hiking to the top of the central highest temple in Angkor Wat, Berisha is intrigued to discover that she is roaming what was originally a Hindu temple before the region was conquered by Buddhists: ‘I pondered the irony of our guide explaining the presence of the eight-armed Vishnu statue at the apex temple, albeit, with a forcefully replaced, still intact, Buddha head.’ (Buddha himself experimented with extreme behaviour. It was his belief that all human action tarnishes the soul with a negative dust weighing a person down to the extent that they are caught in a cycle of repeated rebirth. Renouncers would endure extreme conditions such as abstinence from food and drink or standing exposed under the midday sun in an attempt to burn off their past activities. Only then will they be able to create space for the permanent soul to expand to the size of the universe, eventually liberating them from samsara). The Hindu extremists destroyed the ancient Babri Mosque in Ayodhya, India, in the belief that it was built on the temple of Ram. In Cambodia, as Bashira notes, the Khmer Rouge freely plundered ancient sites to finance their wars; and André Malraux, French novelist, theorist and Minister of Cultural Affairs, ‘removed nearly a tonne of stones from Angkor Wat in 1924’ to decorate the Museums of France. The British Museum is full of looted artefacts and cultural property. The destruction of cultural property, Berisha concludes, is a product of ‘modern hatreds and fictional totalitarian extremisms turning against historical realities of multicultural ethos and coexistence’.
In the final analysis, extremism is really about the fear of ‘multicultural ethos and coexistence’. It is anchored on the belief that one’s own community has the monopoly on truth, there are no other notions of truths, and other claims to truth cannot be tolerated. And it is a belief that is gaining common currency in postnormal times, when pluralism and diversity come knocking on every door, everyone is connected to everyone else, everything is enveloped by contradictions and complexity, and we are perpetually at the edge of chaos. Like monopoly capital, monopolistic truth is evident everywhere – in religious communities as well as those who claim to be secular and atheists.
Take, for example, the Sikh community, seen by the British media as a model of moderation and virtue. But, as Sunny Hundal informs us, extremism is rampant amongst Sikhs who are experiencing a growing puritanical movement. Amongst all the ethnic communities in Britain, Sikhs are most eager to join such extremist groups as the British National Party (BNP) and the English Defence League (EDL). Hundal suggests that Sikh extremism manifests in two ways: ‘open xenophobia that can fuel hate-crimes; and attempts by some to impose their views on others under the guise of religious puritanism’. Any form of criticism or self-reflection is seen as an insult to the community. In 2005, the play Behzti, which makes reference to the rape of a woman in a Sikh Gurdwara, was met with protests and vandalism. Such was the strength of emotion that the play was eventually shut down after the police advised that they could not guarantee security. ‘The furore shocked many in the mainstream media who had earlier assumed Sikhs wouldn’t do anything like the events around Satanic Verses. But the parallels were there. Some wanted to sue the writer, herself a Sikh, for incitement of hatred against Sikhs; others started spreading baseless rumours about the play and the writer; there was the inevitable cry that people shouldn’t be allowed to insult Sikhism (the play didn’t). Of course, she got death threats too, but since the notion of Sikh extremism doesn’t fit the media narrative there was little focus on that’. Fundamentalists wish to impose ‘strict interpretation of the Rehat Maryada (a set of codes set out by scholars in 1950), which prohibits marriage between Sikhs and non-Sikhs at a religious ceremony’. Thus, inter-religious weddings are regularly disrupted, the parties involved threatened, and are not allowed to take place. Various segments of the community are constantly declaring that Sikh girls are being lured by Muslim men who aim to convert them. Honour killings are not unusual. Liberals and moderates are regularly ex-communicated from the community.
The ‘New Atheists’, analysed by Andrew Brown, are just as extreme. Indeed, the parallel with religious fundamentalism is stark. Brown argues that the New Atheist movement ‘was a social rather than an intellectual development’ with ‘two intellectual novelties’ which have been forgotten. ‘The first was the doctrine that moderate religious believers are actually more wicked and dangerous than the ones who burn witches or blow up children. The second, of course, was the nonsense of “memes”, which speaks to a deeper or at least more imaginative longing: that the world works according to a few lovely simple and comprehensive explanations – in this case, something supposedly Darwinian’. Brown finds the ‘exuberant nastiness’ of New Atheism and their projection of Islam as evil ‘disgusting’. He links their contempt for religious communities to the rise of neo-conservatives in the US. The rapid emergence of disbelief in America, he argues, is ‘a response to the destruction of the old, valued and valuable role for a particular sort of labour: in this case, the labour of the intelligentsia’. New Atheism is little more than extreme fundamentalism of the college educated.
Undeniably, the neo-conservatives have a great deal to answer for. The extremes of poverty and wealth, a product of neo-conservative extreme economics, are irrefutable factors in the growth of extremism. In his sobering documentary Bitter Lake, Adam Curtis parallels the confounding chimera of Islamic extremism with the rise of neoliberal economics in the West. Social injustice and economic malaise combine to create a vacuum that all variety of absolute truths have been quick to fill – including the absolute truth of neo-cons themselves that climate change is not a product of extreme human activities. In fact, a major factor behind the wars in the Middle East, and subsequent arrival of refugees on the borders of Europe, as Sweeney points out, was a severe drought that began in 2006 and lasted until 2011. It led to the displacement of people from rural areas to the cities and subsequent competition for diminishing resources causing strain and political tension. Despair is an ideal state of mind for extremism to flourish.
To understand the causes of extremism, and its rapid expansion, we need to appreciate the complexity of our times. Complexity cannot be tackled by simple, one dimensional solutions – a quick war, a new foreign policy initiative, supporting our dictators against their dictators. Moreover, in postnormal times, there is no ‘us’ and ‘them’. There is only all of us – together; and every component of us is connected to all other components that make us a human community. So the truths of others are as important to them as are our own truths are to us. Security of others matters as much as our own security. For freedom to be meaningful it should be equally available to all. Our collective contradictory demands and desires cannot be resolved but only transcended. Everyone must have an equal voice in a polylogue of interplay of cultural ideas and perspectives. These are not mere aspirations, but the demands of postnormal times where contradictions, complexity and chaos are glaring realities. Unless we learn to engage with the complexity of the real world, everything may end up painted with a single colour of chaos – pink or otherwise.