Managing religious extremism is important for peace
Last week was a very eventful week, in which amongst others, we celebrated 30 years since the release of former President Mandela from prison, as well as President Ramaphosa's occupancy of the chairpersonship of the African Union. Peace is associated with both events. President Mandela was a recipient of the Nobel Peace prize and the United Nations has themed 2019-2028, the Nelson Mandela Decade of Peace. President Ramaphosa is expected to implement the project to “silence the guns in Africa” in 2020.
The continent is experiencing a myriad of extremist tensions, be it ethnic or religious, from Mali to Mozambique, that require taming. Extremism is an ideological disposition, characterized by fanaticism and violence. Promoting tolerance and effectively enabling the successful co-existence of differing life approaches, cultures and practices will assist to manage extremism and go a long way in creating a peaceful and stable environment.
South Africa is eclectic and while we don’t appreciate this factor enough, pluralism is quite strongly entrenched in our way of life. After a difficult and long liberation struggle, strides towards creating a non-racial country is gaining moment among the vast majority. Furthermore, people from all religious and cultural persuasions live side-by-side.
With regards to religion particularly, I have friends that practice all the Abrahamic religions, most of whom are conservative; as well as friends who do not practice religion at all. In addition to having lived through the destructiveness of racial and ethnic extremism under apartheid South Africa; exposure to challenges in the Middle East has revealed that there is a major difference between religious conservatism and religious extremism and that the latter can be very dangerous.
The Middle East is where contradicting religious extremisms converge in the most harmful of ways. Christian, Jewish and Islamic extremisms have an unhealthy interdependence and interconnectivity; feeding off each other; sowing hatred while simultaneously advancing a common agenda of destabilisation, mayhem and bloodshed upon a multitude of people who refuse to submit. This highly toxic marriage is a perfect case study for dialectics.
There are many factors that influence the current environment and that informs the breaks in continuity, leaps, catastrophes and revolutions; but in the Middle East, religious extremism is the superstructural manifestation of the dominant observable contradictions. The unity of opposites is raw and blatant, as the extremist groupings sow hatred towards each other on the one hand, while collaborating with each other, on the other hand. The negation of the negation, whereby the destruction of one phenomenon aids the rise of a new, better phenomenon also prevails; except here it manifests in a very negative way e.g. one missile attack leads to better and more missile attacks. At the center or base, is materialism, particularly money and power.
Much of the tension can be attributed to the USA. The USA is where right-wing orientated, Christian extremism, which ironically should be advocating the principle of love, is advancing the deepest of divisions, characterised by hatred of anything that is not Christian or capitalist, including Islamophobia. It was the USA in the form of its President Harry Truman, that enforced, and was the first to acknowledge the State of Israel as proclaimed in May 1948. This proclamation was on the one hand, an affirmation of Zionism or Jewish extremism, and on the other, paradoxically profoundly anti-Semitic, for surely people of the Jewish faith should be free to live wherever they desire, instead of being confined to one small corner of the world? And it was the USA that started the “war on terror” post September 11, 2001.
The consequences of the US-induced Islamophobia, exacerbated post 09/11, and the annexation of Palestinian land by handing it from one colonial oppressor to another colonial settler oppressor, fueled both Islamic radicalism and extremism. (Radicalism is a natural response to an oppressive world order or violent repression. Radicals are not necessarily extremist or sectarian, and do not necessarily use violence to pursue their course.) This laid the basis for the dialectical relationship between Christian, Jewish and Islamic extremists in the Middle East.
Broadly speaking, Jewish and Christian extremists, together with powerful tycoons, through their governments, are killing, purportedly in the name of fighting the Islamic extremists. Islamic extremists use Israeli and USA aggression to justify their stances, and to hijack legitimate liberation struggles or civic protests. All parties feed off their supposed hatred of each other to expand their support bases. Yet, they complement and serve each other in the Middle East, causing wars in countries that refuse to accede to their demands, and slaughtering huge numbers of largely, non-sectarian civilians.
While loudly condemning terrorism, Israel and the USA do not hesitate to form alliances with the likes of al-Qaeda, Isis and similar factions, and countries like Turkey, to destabilise countries such as Syria and Lebanon. Likewise, these extremist “jihadists” who are vocal anti-imperialists, are comfortably accepting arms and coverage from countries such as Israel and the USA. The factors which bind them in this unholy alliance are money, namely oil and arms interests; and power, namely minimizing the influence of Iran, Russia and China. In the meanwhile, the world is being fed and is swallowing stories of “tensions between Shiites and Sunnis” and “interventions to protect the people from their oppressive regimes”.
Exposing the substance behind the conflict is sensitive. Firstly, exposing the hypocrisy of those hiding behind religion is uncomfortable. Then, the potential of being labeled extremist for verbosely ousting the atrocities of Israel and USA is real; likewise, one could easily appear to be pro-despotism. And so, dead bodies accumulate under a blanket of silence. It is for this reason that someone like General Qassem Soleimani was so popular in even the most religiously conservative of areas – he was all too conscious of the true nature of conflict in the Middle East and he was both brilliant and effective at working towards its elimination.
Greed and its ruthless quest for wealth expansion, has too many a times hidden behind extremism. In South Africa it hid behind racial extremism, hence the term racial-capitalism. In other countries it hides behind ethnic extremism. In the Middle East, the guise for wealth expansion and greed is religious extremism.
Dialogue to curtail extremism is essential and efforts by the UN Security Council to consistently place the situation in the Middle East, among others, on its agenda is commendable. For as long as the USA maintains its destructive dominance, however, sustainable peace will remain elusive. Intolerant, arrogant leaders like Trump must go. The notion of a self-imposed benevolent hegemon that is entitled to bully the world, must be defused.
As South Africa assumes the very important role of championing the facilitation of peace on the continent of Africa, we must conscientize our people of the dangers of extremism, both religious and ethnic. It is imperative that, while protecting the cultural and religious rights of all, the expansion of extremism is curtailed, in as non-repressive a manner as possible.
Critical to managing extremism, however, is being responsive to citizens' needs domestically, and creating a more just and fair economic system, generally; for development, governance and security are closely intertwined. By amplifying the voices for peace, based on the cornerstones of tolerance, equity and justice, peace can be attained in our lifetime.
* Reneva Fourie is a policy analyst specialising in governance, development and security. She currently resides in Syria.
** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of IOL