on Fundamentalism, Extremism and Terrorism

extremism immediately brings to mind gory images, sights of an uncivilized rampage, and destruction. The word “fundamentalist” brings up images of gulags, concentration camps, and of KKK. These words are so often used interchangeably and, worse, in lieu of terrorism, that the use of any of these words is enough to whip up visions of WTC 09/11 attacks. The quality of general discourse in matters related to these words is so low that it is just barely a layer above illiteracy. This is an attempt to improve literacy!

All three terms relate to belief frameworks. Irrespective of race, creed, religion, or political persuasion, human beings believe. These beliefs form the framework within which they lead their lives. While adherents of each framework believe that their belief is rational and factual, the reality is that everyone extrapolates some factual tenet of their belief framework into the irrational realm. Yes – all belief frameworks are not the same; and not every framework causes the same damage. But, it is irrefutable that each of those frameworks is belief-driven. Be it resurrection, or eternal heaven, or world peace on a greener earth, each of these frameworks carry within themselves a sense of superiority that is denied to others. It is in this light of frameworks, we define the three terms.

Fundamentalism: when someone stays true to the founding tenets of their belief framework. A fundamentalist peacenik will believe that foundational tenets of pacifism will lead to better living amongst humans; a fundamentalist communist will believe that revolutions will bring equality. The hallmark of a fundamentalist is to deflect blame from the framework, onto the adherents. The common refrain from communists that Russia failed because they didn’t implement “true communism”, is a good example. Am sure the readers can cite many such examples that go “… but, that is not true XYZ”.

However, not all fundamentalists are the same. A study in contrast are the fundamentalist Hindus chanting “सर्वे भवन्तु सुखिन:” [may everyone become happy] and a missionary who chants “all heathens will burn in eternal hell”.

Extremism: This is a layer above fundamentalism. An extremist is not just a fundamentalist, but a fundamentalist whose perception of reality is skewed. In an extremist PoV, his / her belief system is the solution to all problems in the world. In short, the world is full of nails and their belief system is the ultimate hammer. They will not brook dissent, and will not accept that there are situations where their belief framework collapses entirely.

Case in point is MK Gandhi: even as Europe was fighting the worst war in its entire existence, he believed that he could convince the Brits to give up war. No wonder he was a living joke in geopolitical circles. The actions of extremists often impact others disproportionately. Gandhi’s pacifism would inordinately impact Indian freedom struggle. For instance, he refused to give up his belief framework even when the lives of others were at stake. He thought and believed that his belief framework was worth sacrificing 1000s of innocent lives. Especially when armed resistance may have been the less costly path [see Naval Mutiny and how effective it was].

Terrorism: terrorism is extremism that uses theatre and “open fear” to attain the objectives of its belief frameworks. Theatre is essential for maximizing the reach / impact of the act. Hence, an Airplane is a better terrorist target than a Train; a Train better than a bus; a bus better than an individual being. Another important difference between terrorism and fundamentalism is that fundamentalism usually directs personal behaviour while terrorism has a certain community level continuity.

One is often and easily tempted to draw a straight line through these layers and claim that a fundamentalist will always support a terrorist of his / her own belief framework. However, it would be fallacious. Not all belief frameworks are compatible with fear / terrorism. For instance, an extremist Jain monk is likely to fast himself to death than to blow himself up in a market. Therein lies all the difference.


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