Towards a working defintion of extremism

Abu Muhammad Ali ibn al-Husayn ibn Ali Zayn al-`Abidin, the great-grandson of the Prophet, was asked: ‘Is it fanaticism if a person loves his people?’ To which he responded: ‘It is not fanaticism if a person loves his people; fanaticism is when a person considers the vices of his people to be better than the virtues of others.’

This aphorism provides the means to overcome extremism of all stripes, whether chauvinistic nationalism, fanatical religiosity, the promulgation of universal Reason unfettered by moral conscience or the idea that market exchange is an ethic sufficient to regulate all human action. Implicit in this definition is the recognition that personal and collective moral blindness is projected outwards onto another group, whose virtues are converted into vices.

But the Imam moves beyond the recognition of malign projection on to one’s purported enemies to suggest a solution: the avoidance of introspection allows fanaticism to persist unchallenged. Loyalty to your tribe or group is fine — we all belong to tribes and groups of various stripes. The problem is when this loyalty remains unexamined and unquestioned. Without this introspection we will be doomed to blame others for our own failings.

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