TCS Daily

Why We Fear 'Fanatic': The Lesson of the Red Mosque

By Lee Harris - July 12, 2007 12:00 AM

After a week-long attempt to reach a compromise, Pakistani troops attacked the Red Mosque in Islamabad, where the radical cleric Abdul Rashid Ghazi and his followers had barricaded themselves in, armed with machine guns, rocket launchers, and gasoline bombs. The assault by the government of President Pervez Musharraf was clearly an act of desperation. Early in the crisis, Musharraf had promised that he would not storm the mosque so long as women and children were inside. It is possible that Musharraf may have had a genuine humanitarian concern to spare innocent lives, but it is far more likely that his promise was based on his well-grounded fear that a massive blood-letting at the Red Mosque would create a situation that would further endanger the survival of his already very shaky government.

Meanwhile we in the West stand by and watch. Again, we are baffled and perplexed by events in the Muslim world to which it is very difficult for us to comprehend, or even to relate to. Our perplexity is expressed even in the very names we use to refer to Abdul Rashid Ghazi and his followers. Let me give two examples.

The AP speaks of those who are holed up along with Ghazi as his "supporters." Yet does the word "supporter" fit in this context? Hillary Clinton, Fred Thompson, Barack Obama, Mitt Romney, for example, all have supporters. Their supporters attend their rallies, write out checks to their campaign fund, and attach bumper stickers to the back of their cars supporting their candidate of choice. But none of these candidates, quite prudently, would dream of asking their supporters to embrace death martyrdom with them. A supporter, by our definition of the term, does not abdicate his or her own judgment and willpower, for the sake of following blindly the commands of their leader—that is what followers do, and that is what Abdul Rashid Ghazi has around him, blind followers. Supporters, after all, can change their minds; they might write off their first choice, and decide to support another candidate. But Ghazi's followers—at least the hardcore ones—do not behave like that. Even when it is obvious to the world that they are trapped and doomed, they continued to fight desperately, and make good on their declaration that they are prepared to die. So scratch the word "supporter" and use the word that is the only one appropriate in this setting.

The same argument applies to the word "militant." Both AP and Reuters consistently refer to those who are holed up with Abdul Rashid Ghazi as "militants." Obviously, there is some basis for using this term: men who are armed with weapons and who are willing to use them are behaving militantly. The word "militant" is defined by Webster's Third to mean one of three things: "engaged in warfare or conflict," or "fighting aggressively for a cause," or "aggressively active in a cause."

Ghazi and his followers are clearly militant in all three senses of this word: they are fighting aggressively for a cause, namely, the imposition of a Taliban-style regime to Pakistan. Yet, in addition to fighting for their cause, they are also willing to die for it, and to die even when it has become obvious to them that they have no chance of winning.

During the Civil War in America, many Southerners fought and died for their cause; yet a point was finally reached where the hopelessness of their situation could no longer be denied, at which time all but a few stubborn holdouts lay down their swords and surrendered.

In the Red Mosque, this point was reached days before the decision to send in the troops. To Ghazi and his followers, the overwhelming odds against them made no difference in their calculations. It simply did not matter to them. They still refused to compromise or surrender. They accepted in advance the death that awaited them, and with a fatalism that we in the West find virtually incomprehensible.

Such suicidal behavior is not militancy; it is fanaticism. The militant may be prepared to risk his life in battle, but it is always a calculated risk. The fanatic is not given to such calculation. If his cause is lost, he will still refuse to compromise or surrender. Not only will he prefer death for himself, but he will choose it for his entire group, including his own family. The Hebrew Zealots during their failed attempt to revolt from Rome killed their wives and children before turning their swords on themselves. Hitler's minister of propaganda, Joseph Goebbels, poisoned his children to spare them from having to live in a world without Hitler.

Joseph Goebbels was proud of being a fanatic. To him, fanaticism was a term of praise, and not abuse. The Hebrew Zealots looked with contempt on those who were unwilling either to die or to slaughter their own families. In the culture of the modern West, however, to call someone a fanatic is to insult, and not commend, him. Yet, as the incident at the Red Mosque makes clear, our own attitude toward fanaticism is simply an example of ethnocentricism. By refusing to use the word fanatic to describe Ghazi and his followers, we are approaching them through the standards and practices that are observed in our culture, but not in theirs.

In Islam, fanatical zeal has been looked upon as both the ethical and theological virtue par excellence. Furthermore, it has been the agent by which the religion of Muhammad came to dominate the hearts and minds of so much of the world. Fanatical zeal is not a pathology of Islam; it is the glue that has held it together. It was the agent that created the original community of the faithful, all of whom had first to reject the tribal identities they were born and raised with, in order to accept their radically new identity as followers of the Prophet—a profound psychological transformation that could only be brought up by fanatical commitment to their new way of life.

The same commitment also explains the amazing success with which Islam was spread in the first hundred years of its existence. Indeed, without grasping the vital role that fanaticism has historically played in Islam, neither its successful birth nor its far more spectacular spread would make sense. The religion of the Prophet was not a religion for the lukewarm, the skeptical, the wishy-washy, the moderate, or the reasonable. If it had been, we would never have heard of it, because it would have been almost immediately absorbed back into the tribal milieu that had long dominated every aspect of life in the Arab peninsula.

The same spirit of fanaticism is at the heart of the battle over the Red Mosque. Yet, despite its absolute centrality to the drama, we in the West are largely reluctant even to speak of it as a factor. Reuters and the AP can bring themselves to refer to Ghazi and his "supporters" as "militants," but they go to considerable pains to avoid calling them by the name that alone truly fits them.

For many, there is a simple explanation of this omission. Reuters and AP are trying to be politically correct. But how convincing is this explanation? Why is it that a word like "fanatic" is treated as being politically incorrect in the first place? If fanatics are proud of their fanaticism, if it is their boast and their glory, then why not call them by the proper term?

In my new book, The Suicide of Reason, I offer an explanation of why so many are reluctant to use the word fanatic to denote those, like Ghazi and his "supporters," are behaving precisely in the same way that all fanatics have behaved through history. "The problem with much of the Western response to Islamic fanaticism," I write, "is that our refusal to use the word fanaticism appears to be based on our reluctance to recognize the fact of fanaticism. We avoid the word in order to avoid having to think about the thing, thereby leaving the impression that our resistance to acknowledging fanaticism arises less from our sensitivity to Muslim feelings than from our wish to evade the momentous challenged posed by fanaticism itself."

When we use words like supporter in place of follower, and militant in place of fanatic, we are engaging in verbal apotropaism—a rare, but helpful word that is defined as "the performance of magic ritual or incantatory formulas to avert evil." When people who really believe in the Devil call him by an affectionate term like Old Nick, they are using an apotropaic device. Instead of running the risk of calling the Devil by his right name, and having him suddenly appear with horns and tail, they refer to him by a less threatening title, one that sounds positively endearing. In short, human beings have always used apotropaic rituals and formulas to ward off that which we fear the most; and we in the West are still doing it today.

In The Suicide of Reason I write that in the contemporary West fanatics like Abdul Rashid like Ghazi and his followers have become "incomprehensibly alien to us. They do not conform to our expectation of normal human behavior; indeed, they shatter all such expectations. They fill us with panic and anxiety....To relieve this panic and anxiety we must either ignore them or else force them to fit into a category of human action with which we do feel comfortable—all in an effort to make their uncanniness less threatening to our comfortable vision of the world." Both Reuters and the AP exhibit the second reaction to the fanatic: by using words like supporter and militant both are attempting to make the incomprehensibly alien something that we think we are familiar with. After all, aren't we supporters of one candidate or other. Aren't there many things that we act militantly about? We have causes, too, for which we are prepared to fight: rights for blacks, or women, or gays. So where is the big difference between us? What is there so special about the behavior of Ghazi and his supporters that we should find it inexplicable, much less threatening?

Because we insist on denying what is most obvious and most essential about fanatics, namely, their fanaticism, we blind ourselves to the radical threat they pose to any established and settled order. For example, Pakistan under General Musharraf falls far short of our Western notions of a free and open society, but few in the West would be happy to see his regime replaced with a new Taliban—and one armed with nuclear weapons. Few in the West would be willing to see Pakistan plunged into civil war and/or anarchy. Yet the same cannot be said of the Pakistanis themselves. Abdul Ghazi, his followers, and those who sympathize with his cause throughout Pakistan would no doubt like to impose a Taliban-like government for their nation, as their record makes clear.

But if they cannot get that, they are willing to settle for bringing down existing regime and spreading chaos over Pakistan. They are anarchophiles who are aware that upheaval and disorder provide them with the opportunity of gaining power. They are also aware that upheaval and disorder is the enemy of any existing regime. They know that by creating enough turmoil, by forcing the government to respond brutally, by amassing the bodies of martyrdom inside the Red Mosque, they will succeed, though to us in the West their "success" will strike us demented, insane, pointless, and utterly irrational. Like the "militants" who bomb mosques and crowds in Iraq, they are not seeking an objective that we in the West can understand. For them, the disruption of society is not a means to an end; it is an end in itself. Hence the futility of the attempt to reach a settlement with fanatics—they can hardly be expected to compromise for the sake of the very status quo that they are prepared to die to tear asunder.

In The Suicide of Reason, I argue that the West must resist the temptation to resort to apotropaic formulas to keep from recognizing the logic and power of Islamic fanaticism. In addition, I argue that we must discard the illusion that the fanaticism of radical Islam is a contemporary pathology that may just go away, or run out of steam—a threat that is bound to fizzle out and pass away, like the terrorist threat of the Red Brigade in the Europe of a generation ago.

Islamic fanaticism has a historical depth in Muslim culture; it was present at the creation of these cultures, and that makes it radically distinct from the threats posed in the last century by Italian fascism, Nazism, or Soviet Communism, all of which, by their own claims, represented a new departure, a revolutionary transformation of both society and culture. The European threats demanded new prophets with a new revelation—men like Mussolini, Hitler, and Lenin; but Islamic fanaticism appeals to the same prophet and the same revelation that has held together the community of the faithful for nearly fourteen centuries. It is not an innovation, but a restoration. It is consciously seen by those who espouse it as a return to tradition, and not a bold leap into the future. Thus the threat of radical Islam is not a flimsy structure, destined to be blown away in the near future; it taps into the bedrock of Muslim culture, and has the capacity for strengthening itself immensely by spreading throughout the general public that distinguishes it from Italian fascism, Nazism, or Communism.

Finally, no mistake can be more grave than to assess the threat of Islam fanaticism than in conventional military terms. The holdouts at the Red Mosque will be defeated and killed—of that there was never any question. But how will the government's military victory be seen by the people of Pakistan? If storming the Red Mosque ends by further reducing support of Musharraf's already plagued and troubled regime, what a short-lived and Pyrrhic victory it will prove to be, and one whose aftermath no one is in a position to foresee. For that is the cardinal dilemma in trying to make a rational assessment of the dangers posed to the world by Islamic fanatics. Who can predict what a handful of sparks will do to dry timber and underbrush? Sometimes the sparks burn themselves out without harm. At other times, they are stirred into a blaze by the wind, with catastrophic results to the forest. So too with the sparks kindled in the Red Mosque—and they are by no means the only dangerous sparks flying in the Middle East today, set off by the acts of zealots and fanatics.

The damage a spark is capable of doing cannot be gauged by looking at the size of the spark, but only at the chain of reaction that the spark initiates. By the same analogy, the ultimate outcome of the train of events set off this last week at the Red Mosque is still unknown, though we in the West are perfectly aware that if the spark turns into a conflagration there will be virtually nothing we can do to stop. Again, we can only stand by, and watch. Yet, if we are prepared to take a serious and unflinching look at the challenge posed to us by Islamic fanaticism, then at least we will be able to watch with vigilance and intelligence, and not fall prey to the illusion that we have solutions to a threat that we in the West have as yet barely began to understand.

Lee Harris is author of the book Suicide of Reason, now available form Amazon.


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