Saturday, September 19, 2015

Amos Oz on the Essence of Fanaticism

I recently came across a December 3, 2014 AddictingInfo article by Kerry-Anne Mendoza in which she highlights Pope Francis' comparison of Christian fundamentalists with Islamic terror groups such as ISIS.

Apparently, during the pope's return flight to Rome from his visit to Turkey last December, a journalist attempted to draw him into a condemnation of the world's two billion Muslims on the basis of the actions of a few thousand. Francis wasn't having any of it.

“You just can’t say that, just as you can’t say that all Christians are fundamentalists," he declared. "We have our share of them [fundamentalists]. All religions have these little groups.”

"With this succinct, unapologetic statement," writes Mendoza, "Pope Francis has said what many of us, religious and not, have been quietly thinking for some time: Christian and Muslim fundamentalists have far more in common with each other than the rest of us."

Yes, and what they have in common is fanaticism. Accordingly, the pope's comments remind me of the writings of Amos Oz, an Israeli journalist and novelist who has written extensively about a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The following is excerpted from his insightful 2002 book, How to Cure a Fanatic.

Fanaticism is almost everywhere, and its quieter, more civilized forms are present all around us and perhaps inside of us as well. Fanaticism is extremely catching, more contagious than any virus. You might easily contract fanaticism even as you are trying to defeat or combat it. [Not everyone] who raises his or her voice against anything is a fanatic. I'm certainly not suggesting that anyone who has a strong opinion is a fanatic. I'm saying that the seed of fanaticism always lies in uncompromising self-righteousness, the plague of many centuries.

Of course, there are degrees of evil. A militant environmentalist may be uncompromisingly self-righteous, but he or she will cause very little harm compared to, say, an ethnic cleanser or terrorist. Yet all fanatics have a special attraction to, a special taste for kitsch. Too often the fanatic can only count up to one; two is too big a figure for him or her. At the same time, you will find that many fanatics are hopelessly sentimental: They often prefer feeling to thinking and have fascination with their own death. They despise this world and feel eager to trade it for "heaven." Their heaven, however, is usually conceived of as the everlasting happiness that occurs in the conclusion of bad movies.

. . . [T]here is something in the nature of the fanatic that is essentially sentimental and at the same time lacks imagination. And this sometimes gives me hope, albeit a very limited hope, that injecting some imagination into people may help cause the fanatic to feel uneasy. This is not a quick remedy, this is not a quick cure, but it may help.

Conformity and uniformity, the urge to belong and the desire to make everyone else belong, may be the most widespread if not the most dangerous forms of fanaticism. . . . The essence of fanaticism lies in the desire to force other people to change – the common inclination to improve your neighbor, mend your spouse, engineer your child, or straighten up your brother, rather than let them be. The fanatic is a most unselfish creature. The fanatic is a great altruist.

In fact, often the fanatic is more interested in you than in himself. He wants to save your soul, he wants to redeem you, he wants to liberate you from sin, from error, from smoking, from your faith or from your faithlessness, he wants to improve your eating habits, or to cure you of your drinking or voting habits. The fanatic cares a great deal for you; he is always either falling on your neck because he truly loves you or else he is at your throat in case you prove to be unredeemable. And, in any case, topographically speaking, falling on your neck and being at your throat are almost the same gesture.

. . . No man is an island, said John Donne, but I humbly dare to add: No man or woman is an island, but every one of us is a peninsula, half attached to the mainland, half facing the ocean – one half connected to family and friends and culture and tradition and country and nation and sex and language and many other things, and the other half wanting to be left alone to face the ocean.

I think we ought to be allowed to remain peninsulas. Every social and political system that turns each of us into a Donnean island and the rest of humankind into an enemy or a rival is a monster. But at the same time every social and political and ideological system that wants to turn each of us into no more than a molecule of the mainland is also a monstrosity. The condition of peninsula is the proper human condition. That's what we are and that's what we deserve to remain.

So, in a sense, in every house, in every family, in every human condition, in every human connection, we actually have a relationship between a number of peninsulas, and we'd better remember this before we try to shape each other and turn each other around and make the next person turn our way while he or she actually needs to face the ocean for a while. And this is true of social groups and of cultures and of civilizations and of nations.

Not one of them is an island and not one of them can completely merge with the other. These two peninsulas should be related and at the same time they should be left on their own. I know it is an unusual message in these days of anger and revenge and fundamentalism and fanaticism and racism, all of which are loose in the Middle East and elsewhere.

But a sense of humor, the ability to imagine the other, and the capacity to recognize the peninsular quality of every one of us may be at least a partial defense against the fanatic gene that we all contain.

– Amos Oz
Excerpted from How to Cure a Fanatic
Princeton University Press; Reprint edition (2010)

See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
Sufism: Way of Love, Tradition of Enlightenment, and Antidote to Fanaticism
Keeping the Spark Alive: Conversing with “Modern Mystic” Chuck Lofy
My Travels with Doris
In the Garden of Spirituality – Paulo Coelho
It’s Time We Evolved Beyond Theological Imperialism

Related Off-site Link:
Religious Fanatic Stabs Six at Jerusalem Gay Pride Parade – Jason Matthews (Johnny, Etc, August 1, 2015).

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