Perspectives: The many shapes of extremism

Extremely interesting

It was the first time I realized that the very bright, young, and privileged can also be very foolish. In the summer of 1989, a couple of my American friends, dressed in Arab garb borrowed from me and toting water rifles, “terrorized” the campus of Brown University.

A day after my friends staged their “attack,” an Arab American student called a public meeting to protest the racism of the stunt. Why was he so upset? I didn’t get it then. Now I do.

During a recent lecture on the biological bases of behavior, I passed out two articles to my medical students at Kuwait University, one from the New York Times and the other from New York Magazine. I had deleted all clues as to the identity of the subjects and the locations in the stories. I asked the students to read the articles and guess where the stories had taken place.

The first article concerned a group of clerics, known as the “Party of [God],” who advocated serious consequences for those caught romancing on Valentine’s Day. They warned that St. Valentine was a Christian saint, and that celebrating this day was therefore strictly against their religion. And they threatened to immediately marry off any couples caught flirting. Opponents described the clerics’ behavior as “Talibanization.”

My students imagined these hard-liners harrassing the poor romantics, and they were unanimous: This fiasco could only have taken place in Saudi Arabia.

But my students were wrong. In fact, the incident took place in India, and the deity in question was a Hindu god. Allah caught a break on that one.

In the second article I gave the students, a woman complained that “stupid Talibans” had assailed her immediately after a gentleman stranger stopped her on the street to note how cute her baby was. When the man left, three minivans immediately surrounded the woman. Half a dozen bearded men jumped out and began interrogating her on the street: “Who was he? What did he want?”

This time, the students were deadlocked on the location – evenly split between Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia. Fixed in their minds were images of stick-wielding morality police on the streets of Kabul or Riyadh.

It shattered the students’ mental images to find out that this “Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice” was roaming the streets of New York, and that the religion in question was Judaism. Once again, Allah was not implicated.

It has been shown that chimpanzees will go to war to protect their territory. I argued to my students that aggression toward others who don’t share one’s beliefs is nothing more than war over intellectual territory; religious faith is an intellectual line in the air. I concluded by saying that the religious extremists must be right about Darwin: Clearly, there are no signs of evolution here.

My intent was to advance the notion that extremism is nothing more than a bunch of neurotransmitters working overtime – or perhaps under time. It is not Islam or Judaism or Hinduism that creates extremism; rather, some people are predisposed to extremism and will pursue it in any faith.

Yet it was fascinating to see that my students in Kuwait, by opting for Saudi Arabia as a likely location of both stories, seemed to associate their own faith, Islam, with extremism.

The fact is that, in today’s world, anyone would have reached a similar conclusion. In the age of the Internet and satellite television, my students are not shielded from the misconceptions and misrepresentations of their faith any more than the Arab American student at Brown had been.

But if Muslims grow up to identify extremism with Islam, and to believe that to be an accurate reflection of their religion, then we will have a far bigger problem than we ever could have imagined. Passing off aberration as the norm is a danger to all of us. And constantly setting the record right on what is and isn’t Islam is the duty of every able communicator in today’s multimedia world.

Naif Al-Mutawa is the creator of The 99, a group of superheroes based on Islamic archetypes. This article was written for the Common Ground News Service.


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