It appears that all the wrong lessons have been learned by Western governments and by the mainstream media from the recent tragedies in Beirut, Paris, and more broadly, the Middle East. Rash military engagement with ISIS can at best result in a Pyrrhic victory that only furthers the extremist group’s underlying intent of escalating conflict and division between the Middle East and the West and within the Islamic world itself. Further demonization of Muslims in the Western media, meanwhile, will only push more angry young men toward the siren song of radicalization. A tiny, alienated minority will lash out with another vicious crime, and the cycle of hatred will continue.
We understand extremism as intolerance escalated into active hatred, manifesting as words and actions aimed at persecuting individuals or communities. While most rational people are opposed to religious extremism expressed as hatred, violence, and destruction, opinions vary widely as to its origins and how it can be prevented and the underlying wounds healed. Such extremism is both a cause and a direct result of aggressive military interventionism—egoism, self-interest, and intolerance (be it on the part of individuals or nation states) fomenting sectarian divisions and compounding geopolitical instabilities—invariably with an aspect of regional or national political agendas interwoven into religious radicalism.
Yet extremism is not always presented with a face of fiery emotion. Extreme positions are just as often articulated by a calm, well-groomed voice clad in a suit and presented as the preservation of the familiar, the status quo. Unsurprisingly, therefore, radicalism is not merely reactionary, but is often consciously exploited as a tool to exercise power and maintain dominance. All too often, our responses to extremism are deliberately nurtured by vested interests seeking to manipulate our loyalties through exactly these kinds of emotional reactions.
It can be a challenge to separate mere strong opinions from extremist views. We would all like to feel assured that our moral positions are the correct ones, assuming the absence of duplicity or deceit, to be confident that the choices we make are right and ethical; however, taking offence and reacting angrily to ideas and people that we disagree with is not our only choice when our positions are challenged. Strong opinions are often a manifestation of our desire to think and do the right thing, but they can transmute into extremism when infected by certain antisocial traits: the refusal to recognize any kind of compromise, the advocacy and justification of violence on the basis of differences and disagreements, intolerance of dissent within one’s own group, and the demonization of any conflicting point of view.
Religious extremism comes in a multitude of guises that can only be fully understood on a case-by-case basis. Islamic extremism alone, for example, has many forms, from the Wahhabi expression in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States to the thugs that murder atheist bloggers in Bangladesh and Pakistan. In the US, Christian fundamentalism and its more sinister political counterpart, dominionism, yearn for a literal apocalypse in the Middle East to herald the second coming of the Messiah. India’s prime minister, Narendra Modi, meanwhile, is frequently challenged over his ties to radical Hindu elements within the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party that have fanned the flames of anti-Muslim sentiment and violence in recent years, particularly during the 2002 Gujarat riots.
Even Buddhism, which is founded on the principle of avoiding extremes by embracing the Middle Way, is not free from those who succumb to the easy temptation of a black-and-white outlook on the world of good versus evil, us versus them. While there is some validity to tracing the origins of conflicts between Buddhists and religious minorities in Southeast Asia to a history of colonial influences, this should not be used to justify the present-day vitriol that characterizes the social and political treatment of religious minorities in Myanmar or anywhere else. It certainly does not help that there is an element of the politics of ethnicity and national identity inherent in these religious conflicts. These examples are all manifestations of the way in which extremism can fester within a society and be exploited by self-serving agendas.
Buddhism has famously always been cautious of strong views. It urges moderation in every aspect of thought, be it doctrinal conviction, political affiliation, or tribal loyalty. A Middle Way in thought means being sufficiently informed to form an opinion, as well as being humble enough to adjust or discard it in light of new evidence. Empathy, compassion, and an enlightened view of the common good also keep our motivation for even holding an opinion pure—are we expressing opinions for the sake of benefiting others, or do we have more self-motivated goals? Without moderation, opinions too easily become our own personal realities, and with the imposition of the ego onto the way things really are, we set the conditions for all the aforementioned crises—which are, in the end, a result of our own self-inflicted delusions.
A major roadblock to informed opinion is the paradoxical situation of what we might call our “atomized yet interconnected” society. The ascendance of the Internet culture has, sadly, not led to a more general revitalization of intellectualism. Extremists have found the Internet a useful recruiting tool, packaging media-savvy publications and videos to transmit their toxic messages to impressionable audiences around the world. We are also “atomized” in the sense that we share and consume online content alone, mentally and emotionally isolated from our family at the dinner table, our friends in the café, even the stranger we’re about to collide with on the sidewalk, so absorbed are we in our virtual worlds. Added to this atomization, search engines and social media (thanks to access to our private data) filter what we don’t like or agree with and present us with articles, videos, and other media tailored to our search patterns and browsing preferences. Our web-enabled devices are culpable in helping us tune out what we don’t want to know.
We are also “interconnected,” and can instantly consume and share content of any kind and tone. But because we are “atomized” and this content is almost always geared to our biases, we construct an echo chamber in which our own views are amplified and those of others, excised. This paradox of modern life allows extreme views to be shared and consumed in private (often by angry men itching for confirmation), before exploding into the public sphere.
To defeat extremism, society must teach the young to look outwards, critically yet with a moderation of view that exposes how extremist ideologies appeal to negative, unskillful thought patterns. Opposing parties need to be brought together and allowed to communicate openly rather than building hateful caricatures of each other in isolation. Unfortunately, there are all too few opportunities, particularly in the more serious cases of extremism, for people to meet in a safe and controlled environment in which differences can be aired, considered, and discussed with internal reflection. Interfaith and dialogue groups are few and of limited influence. Too few educational institutions teach the causes, conditions, and morality of extremism even though, as Nobel laureate Malala Yousafzai pointed out in the BBC current affairs television program Panorama in October 2013 (in the documentary Shot for Going to School), “The only thing that can fight against terrorism is education.”
As with walking the traditional Buddhist Middle Way, the answers are known, readily available, and unambiguous, yet require concerted effort and deliberate intent to implement. Ultimately, a calm mind and an empathetic heart deeply connected to others (not in the social media sense) are less susceptible to wallowing in the oversimplified dichotomies that extremism exploits.