Two days ago, several radical fundamentalists strapped bombs to their bodies, and commemorated the martyrdom of the Imam Husayn by reenacting it. In the midst of my grief over this tragedy, I started thinking about what leads people to do this sort of thing. It’s not Islam. Let me repeat that. Islam is not the root cause of this kind of tragedy. It’s something else.
There’s a long history dating back to the death of the Prophet Mohammad, the split of Islam into Sunní and Shí’ih sects, the rise of Islamic culture, only to be eclipsed by the European Renaissance, and the influence, along the way, of various reformist movements, like Wahhabism, that have combined to produce the extreme reactionary forms of militant Islamic groups we see today—groups who see what was once a legitimately glorious culture being threatened with extinction by globalization and are fighting back the only way they know how. For those who are interested, there are plenty of resources to study the details. However, you still won’t put your finger on the root cause of Tuesday’s tragedy; at least not insofar as you can claim that the root cause is something unique to the Middle East.
No, the root cause is something way more pervasive. You’ll find it in American politics, and you’ll find it in the religious wars of the software industry (from vi vs. emacs to Mac vs. Wintel to open source vs. proprietary software). The root cause is fanaticism, and that begins with the fervent belief that one is in possession of the One True Way. We’ve all met fanatics in one way or another. These are the people for whom there are only two ways to do things; their way and the wrong way. We might have even exhibited signs of fanaticism ourselves.
Now I know what you’re thinking. We don’t kill each other in the vi vs. emacs debate, and members of Congress don’t shoot at each other from across the aisle, or at least not yet anyway; that, somehow, this is what distinguishes us from the fanatics who strapped bombs to their bodies last Tuesday. That would be a mistake. The only reason we don’t kill over our fanaticism is because the stakes aren’t as high. Our perceived way of life isn’t seriously threatened.
Once fanaticism takes root, the next step is polarization. Tim O’Reilly has written a couple of times about polarization. In a post last January, Tim pointed to some analysis done by Valdis Krebs, using the “related books” tool on Amazon, that shows how the books that people read tend reinforce their political preconceptions. The stark feature of Krebs’ graph is how few people read books that appeal to the other side of the map. The distance from this kind of polarization to Limbaughesque demonization isn’t very far.
Now, I wouldn’t write about all this, except for one thing: bloggers are in an interesting position with potential for combating fanaticism. First, with the variety of RSS feeds out there, we have the ability to expose ourselves to continuous streams of ideas from a number of backgrounds. If we disagree with someone, we can strive to understand what’s right about what they say, not just what’s wrong with it. Secondly, when we write, we can write to inform rather than write to convince. We can try to synthesize ideas from a number of camps into a more comprehensive understanding of the issues we’re discussing.
When it comes to polarizing issues, we tend to fall into confrontational patterns of behavior. Unfortunately, confrontational patterns of behavior very rarely, if ever, change the opinions of others. It might have a viscerally positive feel to it, but the outcome is no different than if we had not written at all. Most of the time, it only serves to polarize us even more. So, what’s to lose by trying a different approach? Anyone up for a personal anti-fanaticism campaign?