What it means to be a religious extremist
by Jesse Hove
Words like extremist and fundamentalist are often thrown around in the media and in Western society when referring to religious people and communities who promote hatred and murder towards others. Unfortunately, this puts a box around religion and creates an undertone that if a religious person takes their faith to a certain level, they have become “extreme,” and should not be accepted by society.
If we have come to a point where only moderate religious belief is to be accepted, then the ideologies based around the religious beliefs of Tommy Douglas, Martin Luther King, Gandhi, Buddha and Jesus should no longer be taken seriously. These individuals were far from moderate in what they thought religion had to tell society.
The new Mount Royal University Muslim chaplain Fayaz Tilly looks at it like this: “What does it mean to be extreme? I will wake m young children up early in the morning to pray, and we will pray four more times that day, all the way up to the late evening. Does that not make me an extremist according to the norms in our culture?”
Mount Royal’s last Muslim chaplain Reda Bedeir described a true understanding of Islam from the story of a prostitute who had been walking through the desert for a long time without anything to drink and was on the verge of dehydration and death. She came across a dog that was also very thirsty and she filled her shoe with water, offering it to the dog to drink. Because of her “extreme” compassion for the dog, her sins were forgiven.
Vibia Perpetua, one of the first recorded female Christian martyrs and a young mother, was arrested by Roman authorities in 203 CE for being a Christian. She was raised in a wealthy noble family and was at first afraid of the prison, “because never before had I experienced such darkness.” The Roman authorities did not want to imprison her and were even more reluctant to kill a woman with a child, but Christianity was a narrow- minded faith that was growing fast, and Rome felt they needed to take a hard line against it.
She could have at any time recanted her faith and been set free. Her prison diary is one of the few recorded works of an ancient Christian woman. In it she talks of the love she has for her father, how she longs to raise her son and how she, no matter her desire for her family, cannot be disloyal to Christ.
She was sent to the arena and given one final chance to recant, but shouted back to her tormentors, “You condemned us, God condemns you!” The bulls trampled her, breaking her ribs. The executioner was commanded to finish her, but the sight of her bravery made him tremble with fear and indecision. She grabbed his trembling hand and guided the sword to her throat. Because of courageous martyrs like Perpetua, Christianity continued to grow throughout the Roman world, despite a high level of persecution.
It might be difficult for our modern society to understand the extreme nature of many religious perspectives, and given much of religious history, this is understandable. But I would also submit that the true beauty of the religious perspective is not in the moderates, but in those who are convicted to be loyal to the truth they see in their religion, regardless of the cost.
I don’t know that your arguments really follow through to your premise that extremism or fundamentalism is a virtue. The reason that people today stifle at the terms is because in common usage, they point to fervent religious beliefs in which believers are willing to kill in the name of their belief. Don’t get me wrong, I have no issue with one’s faith holding primacy in their lives — it’s when that faith supercedes one’s regard for their fellow man that it becomes concerning.
Neglecting to acknowledge this central issue renders your discussion rather impotent. Sure, good has been done in the name of religion (far too may deeds to list in a short piece, I’m sure), but when compared to the incredible death and destruction caused in the name of ‘fundamentalism’ or ‘extremism’ I think you’d be hard pressed to convince anyone that either is a vitrue.
The extremists that you are thinking of do not call themselves extremists. They call themselves the Taliban. They think they are the right Islam, not the extreme version. Extremism as understood from only a violent or ignorant religous persepctive comes from the western media creating an easy access buzzword. If media really want to address the problem of religious violence, or any violence for that matter, they will be best served to dig deeper into the issue, and be far more specific in how they name movements and groups of peoples.