It is true that much of what people see on the net is inflammatory for its own sake, but as more and more pundits, writers, and public intellectuals are realizing (and what the judges of terrorist Anders Breivik already understood), it would be mistaken to rule out destructive, hateful ideas on the assumption that only madmen could have concocted them. Sane people do not go on gun rampages against civilians, sane people do not fly planes against skyscrapers or dispense Agent Orange and sane people do not give the orders for human beings to be gassed. Surely we have walked this route enough to know it is demonstrably false. Indeed, some of the most bigoted, intolerant, and dogmatic individuals are very sane thank you every much, and may even be quite intelligent and cultured. There is something else at work, and that is the power of extreme views.
The inclination towards extreme views is one of the most volatile defects in the human character. It is a leftover from a tribal past shaped over thousands of years and exacerbated by the practice of collective punishment, which only until several decades ago seemed perfectly sensible. Collective punishment extrapolates the crimes of one or a few and imposes their sins on the entire community. Few relationships between extreme views and collective punishment are as multi-faceted as the conundrum between Islam and the West today. There are dynamics of power relationships between the United States and Arab nation states (themselves very recent creations built on unsure foundations) to consider. Ideology is much more prominent amidst the usually dominant economic, political, and military concerns. The scars of European colonialism cannot be forgotten, either. Real or imagined, these narratives of injustice have considerable influence and evocative power in the Muslim world. More extreme views about Islam or Muslims will hardly neutralize them and is not the appropriate medicine.
But the religious extremism in the Middle East, South and Southeast Asia, and the West is not helping. Because beyond debates about whether or not Islam is destructive lies the question of whether or not it is true. Richard Dawkins declared Islam “one of the great evils of the world”, and if he were right it wouldn’t matter if such a severe evaluation were controversial. And of course, there are self-proclaimed Muslims who do evil things, or sincere Muslims who have good intentions but end up with bad outcomes. However, the claim that Islam itself is the problem requires burden of proof of a wholly different class, a burden that Dawkins can probably never answer in good honesty. Yet extreme ideas of Islam (or, from an angry Muslim’s perspective, the West) as a fundamental evil are being mutually fed and nourished by confused messages from both sides.
…conversations between Buddhists and Muslims are much less interesting…
What are these confused messages? Recently, my seminary collaborated with the Buddhist Studies centre at Hong Kong University to send a delegation of Buddhists to Turkey. I’m presently working on the coverage and articles that sprang from this Muslim-Buddhist dialogue, and most of this material will not reach beyond my wider community and my readers. My former housemate is half-Syrian and half-Egyptian, one of the most open-minded and liberal friends I can ever have the privilege of knowing. He is also a Muslim. Probably no one but a few people will learn about our friendship. Unfortunately, conversations between Buddhists and Muslims are much less interesting than watching enraged Arabs setting fire to Western embassies. And so the extreme views parties march on, relentless in their apparent logic, common sense, and creative destruction.
And the fire of collective punishment, immolating the bodies of blown-up civilians in Western cities or bombed villages across the Muslim world, burns away.