Certainty is out of vogue. We are learning to communicate any convictions we have more tentatively; we feel obliged to qualify any statements we make. And for good reason. We have noticed something common to people who blow themselves up in buses, fly planes into tall buildings, economically colonise other countries or bomb them into submission.
The rest of us—the vast majority of people— cringe and protest.
We see violent people as having dangerous levels of certainty and conviction—fundamentalists and extremists—and ourselves as peacemakers, free to question anything and think for ourselves. But since experiencing the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks while living in Manhattan, I am not so sure anymore. I am beginning to think neither is true: we are not free; they are not extremists.
First, we are all part of one of the most fundamentalist ideologies in history.
Never has such a large group of people submitted themselves to a single ideology like we do today. The ruling dogma of our time is the economy.
Albeit in different words, we hear this rumour of the oppresive dictatorship of the economy over all our lives. From workers in Chinese rice fields to Wall Street moguls, we have become unquestioning followers. We have subjected our individual and communal lives to decisions that honour the market above any other force, the story of economic progress over any other story, corporations over any other institutions, and possessions over any other values that govern our lives.
For example, virtue has morphed from something valuable in itself into a helpful strategy to overcome the cost of transactions. Relationships have become a network for spreading one’s influence and business. Our “free time”
is more and more a paid-for activity.
News about the world has become a form of entertainment, whose bottom line is to keep advertisers happy. While insisting we are unique, we increasingly use words from commercials to describe our life dreams and celebrity personalities to describe the person we would like to marry. The millennia-old concept of communal life has morphed from being a citizen to a consumer.
When a movement, a revolution, a religion or a country matures and moves away from its first ideals and ability to adapt—from the ability to keep on dreaming and changing—and becomes “fundamentalist,” fear has taken hold of the imagination. Capitalism, with its initial insights into the human spirit, ingenuity and perseverance, has been steadily turning into consumerist fundamentalism. We live by the fear of losing everything through some misfortune of world events, the fear of the poor or lazy, who might take everything from us, and the fear of finding ourselves among the “have nots”—through old age, being ugly or being alone.
So most of us who watch “extremists”
blow things up are not free thinkers at all. Most of us are fundamentalists, unaware of the fact, yet participating in the madness of self-destruction. Moreover, our public ideology has found a way to criticise itself or laugh about itself while constantly strengthening its grip on our actual lives. We can talk as much as we want about the need to live sustainable lives, curb our desires, talk about the sacredness of the earth and learning to see that small is beautiful, as long as we—individually or corporately—don’t try to change the way we actually live. The only power that makes us change our lifestyle is— again—economic. Nothing else can move us. We are not free.
But we should also consider that supposed extreme religious fundamentalists are not extremely religious at all. Their fundamentalism is much closer to consumerist fundamentalism than we think. To blow oneself up in order to wake up surrounded by sighing virgins or other bliss expresses nothing but a desire for extreme products and services, with celestial goods instead of earthly ones. People who blow themselves up are actually people without conviction, commitment or certainty.
Because they are not sure about their faith, they gravitate to acts of selfdestruction.
Because they cannot find peace with their creaturehood, they take on themselves God’s prerogative to create or destroy life. Because they have not grasped the religious teaching of the inter-dependence of all life and the absurdity of reducing the other into an enemy, they are so detached from the image of God in themselves that they are ready to act on their self-hatred.
At the same time, we give them a title of “religious extremists.” But what then are people like Gandhi, Martin Luther King and many others who have given their lives protecting the interests of those with whom they disagree?
Religious lightweights? No, people who are extreme enough and certain about something care enough to stand up to the officially-promoted reality.
There is a scarcity of religious or humanist extremists willing to dissent, not so much with talking, writing or protesting but dissenting deeply from within. In a fundamentalist sort of way.
It seems leaders like those who have helped humanity in the past cannot surface and lead today. Their ideas are subjugated to our public ideology. First political campaigns and now the whole world runs under the banner, “It’s the economy, stupid.” If you think anything else can matter more, you are not sane enough to be trusted, we are told.
The resulting scarcity of public dreamers creates a vacuum of imagination.
Today, not only has the culture lost its critical distance from the social reality of unstoppable consumption but most religion has lost this critical distance as well.
The current order of things seems like something given to us—something that can’t be argued and cannot be changed with our choices; something eternal, after which there is no future to be fathomed.
We have grown up with a classic myth of what it means to wage war. It has always meant taking the weapons, conquering the other and preserving one’s own way of life at all costs. Yet, on our interdependent planet, we have no territory left to exploit and no more wars that can be won. In this world, empathy, cooperation and forgiveness have become the most potent agents of transformation.
To take the risk of refusing to reduce anyone to “an enemy;” to contribute instead of just take from the world; to be interdependent instead of selfsufficient; to forgive and absorb wrong instead of retaliate; takes people with courage and strong convictions. We have to learn to measure our lives differently.
May new fundamentalists please step forward.