08 March 2015

Fundamentalism and Radicalism

When people argue that there's something essentially or intrinsically Islamic about the Islamic radicalism practised by the self-styled Islamic State, critics can counter that at the most there may be something essentially Sunni about it. This should be more clear after the last week's reports of IS vandalism and plunder of archaeological sites in Iraq. It's reminiscent of the Taliban's bombing of the Bamiyan Buddha statues in Afghanistan, and of course the Taliban were Sunnis also. Of course, not all Sunnis are as violently iconoclastic as the Taliban or Daesh, but we can say with even more confidence that few if any Shiites are as violently iconoclastic. Part of the Sunni "takfiri" beef with Shiism is that Shiites are idolators for having holy sites other than the one in Mecca and for revering imams whom Sunnis presumably presume to be heretics. Sunni extremists define idolatry all too broadly, as if convinced that memorializing anything goes against the singleminded and exclusive worship of Allah. It didn't matter than no one actually worshipped the gods of Babylon anymore; the relics at the archaeological sites were idols and Muslims, according to the IS, had a duty to smash them. Historical value means nothing to them, though they allegedly did carry off whatever they thought they could sell to raise money for the caliphate. It may be that history itself means nothing compared to the Qur'an's construction of time and space. But if Islamophobes want to take this vandalism as further proof of Islam's unique barbarity, history can remind them that we've seen this sort of destruction before, and not so long ago, and there was nothing Islamic or even religious about it. We saw it in China during the Cultural Revolution at the end of Mao's rule, and in Cambodia during the reign of the Khmer Rouge. These radical communists in Asia might look like the diametric opposites of Islamic fundamentalists, but just as radicalism and fundamentalism are sort of synonymous, signifying a return to roots, so vandalism in the name of communism and vandalism in the name of Islam may express a more common impulse that transcends culture or ideology. A desire to see everything old, everything established, everything traditional destroyed is most likely not limited to Sunnis or Maoists. It can express an otherwise inconsolable frustration with a world that doesn't seem to give people a chance, yet should and would if not for however many accretions of injustice. In simplest terms, it's a feeling that the world needs to start over if all of us are to get our due. In China, that impulse was manipulated and exploited, if not created outright, by a leader who dreamed of remaking the world according to his commands. In Iraq, Syria and elsewhere today it is probably a more spontaneous, grass-roots impulse. But it isn't an exclusively Islamic or even exclusively Sunni impulse. Isn't there at least a faint echo of it in the transparent longing for civilizational collapse we see among survivalists in the developed world? None of them may actively smash the treasures or mere markers of the past, but few seem likely to miss much of that, and more may believe that they'll only come into their own, or simply find themselves, when the complications and inhibitions of contemporary civilization are out of the way and a more just order evolves spontaneously and presumably in their favor. Survivalists, however, have some things they still plan to protect, but what of the likely larger numbers who grow more convinced that they have no stake in society today and nothing to lose in tearing it down? Between these impulses little could be left standing in the future. Religion may have little to do with it, and ideology less, and even where religion and ideology have more obvious influences, the real human factor behind all such vandalism may be nothing more sophisticated than just plain spite.

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