Islamic Perspectives

Religious fanaticism — is it really religious?

Generally, rationalists hold religion responsible for religious fanaticism. Is it really so? First of all, we must understand what is fanaticism? When mind is closed to any idea other than one holds and refuses to accept even simple logic, much less complex arguments sometimes involved, and prefers to follow it rather than think, using ones own intellect, it would be called fanaticism and a person is known as a fanatic.

One can easily understand that this does not involve religious issues alone but also other opinions, be that political, cultural or social. Any firmly held opinion which refuses to change in view of overwhelming evidence to the contrary would be called fanatically held opinion. Thus fanaticism is psychological whereas religion is moral and spiritual.

It would be appropriate to distinguish between faith and fanaticism. Faith is also something firmly held by a faithful person. It is no faith if it is not firmly held. Then question arises what is the difference between faith and fanaticism? There is a world of difference. Faith is firmly held opinion but based on reason which leads to inner, spiritual growth whereas fanaticism leads only to blind following and intellectual stagnation.

Faith produces great confidence in one’s own self and fanaticism leads, on the other hand, to dependence on the leader. Faith leads to inner serenity and Arabic word for it is iman (i.e. something which makes one feel calm and serene). Fanaticism makes one totally insecure, lacking confidence and hence the person refuses to listen to any rational arguments. Greater the insecurity and lack of confidence, greater the degree of fanaticism. Also, a person with faith has knowledge and a fanatic totally lacks it.

I have discussed this difference between faith and fanaticism because there are increasing number of apparently religiously inspired fanatical acts latest of which was the killing of Salman Tasir for his criticism of Towhin-e-risalat act which has stirred the whole world. Let us be very clear that the assassin of Salman Tasir was a fanatic and was not at all a man of religion, whatever he might think of himself.

A religious man would never kill and particularly when this law was not at all divine in origin but enacted by the Pakistani Parliament and for political reason, not for religious ones. When a military dictator Zia-ul-Haq felt insecure of retaining power he, in order to buy some ‘ulama, enacted this act. Thus the act itself is political, not religious. It is important to understand that often religious fanaticism is exploited by unscrupulous politicians and Pakistan’s so called liberal and democratic politicians are equally guilty of this.

It should also be noted that a fanatic’s opinion can also change if someone deals with him/her with love and understanding and affection and also imparts him correct knowledge which a fanatic lacks. Here I would like to give example of Swami Aseemananda who has been a Hindutva fanatic met a Muslim boy who himself was an accused in the Mecca Masjid blast. They were in the same jail and this Muslim boy Abdul Kalim, served Asemmanand by fetching him water, food and helping him in other ways and he did all this selflessly knowing well the role of Aseemanand in certain blasts in which Muslims were killed.

He also narrated his own story of arrest, torture etc. to the Swami. Thus Swami realised this boy suffered because of his misdeeds and was selflessly serving him. Hence if he did not confess several such Muslim boys would suffer and their careers would be ruined. He also asked the boy several questions about Islam, and Prophet’s teachings and the boy told him how humble was the Prophet and how he forgave his enemies. This further deeply influenced the Swami and he decided to confess his crime, even if it meant death sentence.

This shows how a fanatic can change, if treated with love and given correct information. Which he /she did not know and hence held a wrong opinion firmly thinking it was the ‘truth’. Aseemanand stood by his confession before a magistrate and hence there is no question of any pressure on him. There are several other such examples that one converts one’s opinion about a person whom one once hated intensely.

One finds this phenomenon, quite interestingly, on much wider scale in the Western world. Many Westerners including Americans who hated Islam after 9/11 converted to Islam when they studied the Qur’an and came to know the truth of Qur’anic teachings and along with Qur’an they also studied Masnavi by Maulana Rum which stresses love so much that it says only love is the true religion. In USA since 9/11 the Qur’an and Masnavi [Mathnawi] Maulana Rum are the fastest selling books.

Many of these people, who read the Qur’an and Masnavi, embraced Islam. Thus it was cataclysmic event of 9/11 which made these haters of Islam read Qur’an to find out truth about Islam and to embrace that very religion which they had hated so much. It is also a well known psychological phenomenon that you love something as intensely as you hate it.

Thus much of the so called ‘religious fanaticism’ would disappear from the world if the media behaves responsibly as it is expected to and correctly informs people rather than misinform them. However, fanaticism is generated with purpose by the vested interests and media (specially mainstream media read and watched by millions) and is controlled by these very vested interests.

All the stories appearing in the media may not be untrue as media is clever enough to maintain its ‘objectivity’. This trick is played by selectivity of reporting. There are several stories contrary to what is reported but they are totally ignored or the context of events is suppressed. Thus there are several ways of misinforming people who uncritically buy media stories. The uncritical buyers of media stories do not suspect the objectivity or intentions of media moghuls.

Also, media in collaboration with the ruling classes in western countries, especially the USA, invent new terms which later on are used universally by media of the ‘less developed’ countries. The US media is uncritically followed by the media in Asia and Africa and thus hatred against certain targeted religions and communities spread worldwide. When revolution took place in Iran in late seventies of last century, the revolutionaries were depicted as ‘fundamentalists,’ a term borrowed from Christianity, and applied to those who believed every word of Bible as divine.

Now it was a clever trick by the US media to divert attention from real issues by simply portraying Iranian revolutionaries as religious fanatics. The revolution in Iran was a very complex affair. There was hatred against the Shah who was a great tyrant and whose intelligence agents had tortured and killed hundreds of young people; there was hatred against USA for using the Shah as their stooge for perpetuating US imperialism in the Middle East.

All this was sought to be hidden by using the term fundamentalism i. e. religious fanaticism and the whole world media began using the word fundamentalist and thought Iranian revolution was a result of mere religious fanaticism and nothing else. There were very few papers and magazines which threw light on the real causes of Iranian revolution. Thus one should be very careful while reading or watching media stories.

Even conservative clerics, be they Muslim, Hindu or Christian, are not mere fanatics. There is always a method behind their madness. What is happening in Pakistan and the role of conservative clerics there has definite interests, less religious and more political. Partly it is reaction to US policies in Afghan-Pak region and partly lust for power which they would wield through demand for enforcing Shari’ah law (nifaz-e-shari’ah).

If secular laws are enforced, then it is liberal, secular democrats who will wield power and ulama will have no role and if it is shari’ah laws, liberal secular democrats shall have no role and it is conservative ‘ulama who shall enjoy power. Thus in Muslim world today there is a dilemma for the liberal secular ulama: either they collaborate with these ‘ulama or suppress them. In both cases they face serious problems.

They can collaborate only by partially or wholly accepting and implementing their demands thus leading to increasing influence of the clerics as it happened during Zia-ul-Haq’s regime or suppressing them giving rise to popular revolt as happened in Iran during Shah’s time. Either way it is a tricky problem for the ruling elite in Asia and Africa. There is no easy way out.

Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto in Pakistan also faced  the same dilemma and he took several steps conceding to the demands of ‘ulama and ultimately declaring Ahmadias as non-Muslim minority thus increasing religious intolerance in Pakistani society. Similarly be it Nawaz Sharif or Musharraf or Zardari, all of them make use of these conservative ‘ulama for their own power and end up spreading religious fanaticism.

Thus we must understand underlying deeper reasons for genesis and spread of ‘religious fanaticism’ and not dismiss it as merely caused by religion and thus alienate masses and gift them away to these clever politicians and conservative clerics. We have to strike at the very roots of the problem to tackle it.


This article appeared in The Milli Gazette print issue of 16-28 February 2011 on page no. 28

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