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Are All Extremists Equal?

Entry 1976, on 2019-04-24 at 20:30:22 (Rating 5, Religion)

I recently got involved in a short argument about the values of different religions. I can't remember how the subject started (I'm fairly sure I wasn't deliberately stirring up trouble) but at one point my opponent said, in relation to Islamic terror attacks, that all religions have their extemist elements. Well sure, they do, but I commented that some religions have far worse extremists than others and that might easily be related to some of the underlying values of the religion.

To make my point I asked her to compare the number of people killed and captured during Mohammed's military campaigns described in the Koran, with the number of deaths Jesus was responsible for as recorded in the Gospels. She got really upset, refused to answer, and left my office. That's why the debate was short, I guess!

She was right that every group is composed of a series of individuals with varying degrees of dedication or enthusiasm towards the core beliefs of the group, and with different ideas on how the group's beliefs should be supported or expanded. So you could say there are always extremists and moderates, and you might also say that there is usually a rabid lunatic fringe in each group.

And this is often used as a defence of some sections of society, especially relating to Islam at this point in history, as well as a way of attacking other groups, such as conservatives. The implication is that every group has its extremists and that those extremists are roughly as bad as each other. But - as you are surely aware by now - I'm going to show that this isn't true.

In fact it should be obvious that it's not true. It should be fairly clear that Islamic extremists are the biggest concern for the world today, because their form of extremism is both the most prevalent and the most radical. It involves deliberate harm and violence to others, with little consideration about how guilty those victims are of any of the claims the extremists make against them.

And a spectrum of varying extremism exists for every other group, down to the point where some do very little harm at all. I agree, it's not simple in many cases to get a true representation of the motivations of an extremist. Sometimes their reasons for carrying out an extremist act involve some politics, religion, and often some personal experience which has turned them against the world. But, I think there are clear trends in the big picture, and these complications are too often used as an excuse.

It is also difficult to come up with an objective scale of how harmful different forms of extremism are. But I still think there are broad categories which extreme activities might be classified into, from violence and murder at one end, to vigorous debate at the other.

So now I will list off a few groups, and briefly discuss the form their extremism takes...

Islam. As I said above, I think this is the biggest problem of this type faced by the world at this stage of history. Islamic extremism is violent and designed to cause maximum harm and fear. It is also well organised, and often involves large coordinated groups of people. And it is clearly motivated primarily by religious ideology, which generally results in the most dangerous and unthinking beliefs. As well as this, some surveys show significant support for violent action from so-called moderates. Should we use this to condemn all Muslims? Of course not, but it is a point we should be aware of.

White Supremacy. This is a difficult one, because this term is used carelessly to encompass many different belief systems. It is also used as a trendy catch-phrase by many people to describe anything which isn't, in their opinion, politically correct enough. There have certainly been some terrible events perpetrated by people associated with this group, the recent Christchurch Mosque Attack being the most obvious, but there are some significant differences between that and Islamic terrorism. First, these terrorists tend to be individuals with no cohesive organisation behind them. They also tend to indulge in less symbolically radical forms of violence (shooting as opposed to beheadings, etc). And for every person a white supremacists kills there are probably hundreds killed by Islamic terrorists.

Christianity. While the world's biggest religion has an extremely troubling past, it is relatively benign today. Countries based on Christian culture, even if they are not particularly religious today, seem to be more peaceful and prosperous than most others. And the worst reports of Christian terrorism seem to relate to relatively isolated events, like attacks on abortion clinics, or to anti-social behaviour like hate speech (from Westboro Baptist, for example) rather than mass murder and destruction. Also, the lack of support for radicals amongst the moderates in Christianity seems to be more genuine.

Other religions. There are certainly valid reports of atrocities committed by Hindus and Buddhists, amongst others, but these seem to get lost in the greater flood of Islamic terrorism.

Conservatism. Conservatism can be a bit tied up with the white supremacy and Christianity categories above, so there is some overlap with violence motivated by those beliefs, but in general they seem to be only moderately problematic. Interestingly, there are a surprising number of mass shootings in the US done by non-conservatives. For example the Fort Hood shooter (who was also a Muslim), Virginia Tech (a Christian who used religious imagery), Colorado theater, the Connecticut school, and maybe Columbine. Of course, gun violence is more often associated with conservatives, and that's probably fair. Again, notice how the overlapping ideologies can be a problem here.

Liberalism. Liberals today seem to be full of self-righteous indignation about the smallest issue, but generally the worst they are likely to indulge in is trying to get their opponents banned from speaking, or to get them fired, or to publicly shame them, often for things they have no need to be ashamed of. So liberals are pretty good in general (but see the list of mass shooters who were Democrats above, and note the damage done in protests after Trump won the election), and their main problem is lack or rationality rather than a propensity towards physical violence.

Feminism. To be fair to my second least-liked belief system (next to Islam) they don't generally get involved in physical violence. But there have been many people's lives ruined by unsubstantiated and trivial claims made by feminists, so they are responsible for significant societal harm, even if that cannot really be compared with the real terrorism inflicted by the first few groups in this list.

Atheism. I admit to being biased here (being a member myself), but atheists don't seem to indulge in much extremism at all. When the opponents of atheism often point to Richard Dawkins as a "strident" or "ideologically blinded" member of that group then you really have to wonder at how bad things could possibly be. Dawkins is generally very polite and reasonable even when a certain amount of frustration creeps into his debates. And if debates and verbal criticism are the worst form of extremism in a group I think that group should be proud!

So in answer to the question, "are all extremists equal?" I say, of course not. It's patently absurd to even consider making that claim. And that does affect the rest of the group as well, because the extreme fringe always reflects some of the values of the group as a whole.

So if anyone says something like "they have problems, but every group has its extremists" remember they're suggesting that a murderous lunatic prepared to blow up himself and any other person around him is in the same category as a mild-mannered university professor. I would say, anyone who supports that view is not only living in a fantasy world, but they are also making the problem far worse.

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Comment 1 (5015) by Anonymous on 2019-04-30 at 10:19:56:

Well stated. It's about time someone stood up and said this. Islam is the biggest problem, but too many people are scared to say that.

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Comment 2 (5016) by OJB on 2019-05-01 at 13:09:44:

I think it’s a fair issue to discuss, as long as it doesn’t degrade into a crazy rant. And I fully understand that other religions have been equally problematic in the past. I also try to criticize ideas, rather than people. It’s not the believers fault that they have been invaded by a “mind virus” called religion!

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