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Alan Levy

Alan Levy: Extremism

by Alan Levy, January 20, 2015

Over the past few weeks with the terrible events in France and the discovery of the same kinds of folks in Ottawa, I have thought a lot about extremism. Why are we going through a period where extremism seems to be prevalent more than one would image? We are better educated, live materially better lives in the West, yet there is hollowness to it all.  Amos Oz, Israel's most prominent writer, has called Jewish extremists “Hebrew neo-Nazis”. How have so many of us lost our balance and fallen into the abyss of fascist extremism? Have we not learned from history particularly of the 20th century where more people have died due to extremism than any other century before?

We like to believe we have moved forward with innovation and that we are a more sophisticated species than those that came before us. Yet there is one sure principle as we move forward, we continue to find more efficient and effective ways to murder one another. Our inability to live with one another in a peaceful and in a symbiotic fashion seems to ever escape us. Why can we not live in harmony that we say we all crave?

“Ultimately, the core problem that extremism presents in situations of protracted conflict is less the severity of the activities (although violence, trauma, and escalation are obvious concerns) but more so the closed, fixed, and intolerant nature of extremist attitudes, and their subsequent imperviousness to change”. Extremism of any kind sees the prevailing values and ideology of the “enemy” as in conflict with their values and philosophy, so one will hear an extremist talk of the other side being evil, crazy or disrespectful of our values, that they must destroy the competing belief system, because they wish to destroy you, so we must do it first! The view is that extremism is an emotional outlet for severe feelings stemming from "persistent experiences of oppression, insecurity, humiliation, resentment, loss, and rage" which are presumed to "lead individuals and groups to adopt conflict engagement strategies which ‘fit’ or feel consistent with these experiences”. So in modern day radicalized Islamism, those attracted to this ideology often feel a sense of disassociation and a profound alienation from the society which they live in.

Robert Kennedy said, "What is objectionable, what is dangerous about extremists is not that they are extreme but that they are intolerant. The evil is not what they say about their cause, but what they say about their opponents."

Rabbi Alan Lure put it this way:

“Extremism today all have three main characteristics in common”,

1.  Unquestioned certainty about one's position
An extremist is certain that his position is absolutely and completely true, and will go to great lengths to defend it. The underlying insecurity that accompanies this certainty stems from the fear that any element of doubt would negate the person's self-identification and, therefore, his very existence. As Joseph Soloveichik famously noted,
All extremism, fanaticism and obscurantism come from a lack of security. A person who is secure cannot be an extremist. 
This insecurity drives the extremist to assert that not only is his view right, but is, in fact, the only view that holds truth. In the most extreme form, he will silence, and even kill, those who present the possibility that he may be wrong, in order to keep from ever exposing the fragility of his own position.

2. Demonizing those who disagree
A hallmark of an extremist is the often vile language used to attack those who disagree or hold different viewpoints, blaming the other for all the ills of the world. In a gentler form this takes the form of sarcasm and attacking the other's character, but the intention is the same. It seems that many crave this type of language, perhaps in order to clarify one's position, arouse passion, or create a "team" in which to belong. An extremist, though, can't allow himself to see one who disagrees as a fellow human being, with the same essential needs, desires, and hopes, as himself. This would open the door to compassion, which may lead to doubt -- something an extremist cannot allow.

3. Desire for a Final Battle, or "Holy War"
Most disturbing of all extreme views is the belief in the inevitability of a Final Battle that will -- usually violently -- sweep away unbelievers and usher in an era of world-wide unity under the Truth of one view. There seems to be a glee behind this, and one only needs to listen to a "hell and brimstone" preacher, of any faith, to feel this strange eager anticipation of chaos. Apocalyptic visions are not the sole property of religion, though. Just listen to the mad ranting of Nazi propaganda, or the cold plotting of the Soviet Union's plans to topple the evils of capitalism and bring in a worker's paradise -- or to some of the current voices of extreme atheism that urge the end of any form of religion and spiritual belief”.

Now a society like the Canadian one that has a complacent population on most political issues, where one has never fought for any political principle on an extremist ideology, can have a heyday in such a society. Where the average person does not hold any strong political opinions studies have shown.  But we cannot afford to allow our tolerance to be tolerant to the intolerance of extremist views. Yes, we must be intorrelent to the intolerant extremism of radical Islam or any other such group that plot our destruction in the West! At the same time we must never allow ourselves, as a civil liberal democratic society, to be so overzealous that we injury our values and our belief system in replying back to such extremism; as has happened in the United States in law and action, such as the war in Iraq.

We must understand that intense national emotions can have large scale consequences for a nation’s progress towards its goals. If we become extremist in our pursuit of radical Islam, we shall derail the very needs of every democracy, which will allow all within our society to have the ability to make our own decisions and not be trapped by web of ideology! We must have strength, but also compassion at times of stress, to ensure we do not injury our values, which is just what the extremists want!


Ast the Indian diplomat Vikas Swarup has stated:  The fight against international terrorism isn't just a fight against a bunch of misguided extremists; it is a fight to defend the values that we hold dear.

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