ISIS is a disgrace to true fundamentalism

Slavoj Zizek writes: Long ago Friedrich Nietzsche perceived how Western civilization was moving in the direction of the Last Man, an apathetic creature with no great passion or commitment. Unable to dream, tired of life, he takes no risks, seeking only comfort and security: “A little poison now and then: that makes for pleasant dreams. And much poison at the end, for a pleasant death. They have their little pleasures for the day, and their little pleasures for the night, but they have a regard for health. ‘We have discovered happiness,’ say the Last Men, and they blink.”

It may appear that the split between the permissive First World and the fundamentalist reaction to it runs more and more along the lines of the opposition between leading a long satisfying life full of material and cultural wealth and dedicating one’s life to some transcendent cause. Is this antagonism not the one between what Nietzsche called “passive” and “active” nihilism? We in the West are the Nietzschean Last Men, immersed in stupid daily pleasures, while the Muslim radicals are ready to risk everything, engaged in the struggle up to their self-destruction. William Butler Yeats’ “Second Coming” seems perfectly to render our present predicament: “The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.” This is an excellent description of the current split between anemic liberals and impassioned fundamentalists. “The best” are no longer able fully to engage, while “the worst” engage in racist, religious, sexist fanaticism.

But are the terrorist fundamentalists really fundamentalists in the authentic sense of the term? Do they really believe? What they lack is a feature that is easy to discern in all authentic fundamentalists, from Tibetan Buddhists to the Amish in the United States — the absence of resentment and envy, the deep indifference towards the nonbelievers’ way of life. If today’s so-called fundamentalists really believe they have found their way to Truth, why should they feel threatened by nonbelievers. Why should they envy them? When a Buddhist encounters a Western hedonist, he hardly condemns. He just benevolently notes that the hedonist’s search for happiness is self-defeating. In contrast to true fundamentalists, the terrorist pseudo-fundamentalists are deeply bothered, intrigued and fascinated by the sinful life of the nonbelievers. One can feel that, in fighting the sinful other, they are fighting their own temptation. This is why the so-called fundamentalists of ISIS are a disgrace to true fundamentalism. [Continue reading…]

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3 thoughts on “ISIS is a disgrace to true fundamentalism

  1. Syd

    I do not know what Zizek means by “authentic fundamentalists”, but I would consider the first Protestant leaders to be such. Here’s John Knox in his Godly Letter of Warning, explaining why good people in “idolatrous” cities should still be slaughtered:

    Secondly, it is to be noted, that idolatry so incenses and kindles the wrath of God, that it is never quenched till the offenders, and all that they possess, are destroyed from the earth; for he commanded them to be stoned to the death, and their substance to be burnt; and if a city offended, that it shall be altogether destroyed without mercy. This may appear a severe and rigorous judgment. But if you shall consider the cause, God’s great mercy towards us shall be espied; for thereunto he declares himself [an] enemy unto our enemies. For all those that would draw us from God (be they kings or queens), being of the devil’s nature, are enemies unto God, and therefore God wills that in such cases we declare ourselves enemies unto them; because he would that we should understand how odious is idolatry in his presence, and how that we cannot keep the league betwixt him and us inviolate if we favour, follow, or spare idolaters…

    Knox cites Bible verses backing up his opinion, and if you believe the Bible is infallible, it’s impossible to disagree with him. BTW, I read a few years ago that one of the charges against Michael Servetus was that he claimed that Israel was a barren land, and this made him a heretic because he based his opinion on Strabo instead of the Bible. (Calvin of course had him burned.)

  2. Paul Woodward

    Even though Zizek uses the expression “authentic fundamentalists” he seems to be employing a definition of fundamentalism that suits the purpose of his argument rather than one that accords with the way the term is generally used. He is equating fundamentalism with depth of belief and seeing in ISIS’s extremism evidence that their intolerance of non-believers reveals their own lack of faith.

    The inability to reconcile faith and doubt leads many religious people to become intolerant — their drive to impose their beliefs on others seems in part to be an unconscious way of trying to buttress their own weak faith.

    Having studied religion for many years from the inside and the outside I think the most common mistake the faithful and the faithless make is to attach too much significance to religious texts, treating them as the embodiment of the religions they represent.

    Religions are instead, in my opinion, communities of practice. Christianity/Judaism/Islam/Buddhism etc are above all the lives of the people who cluster themselves under these names. To the extent that a religion fails to shape in a positive way the way someone lives, one has to wonder whether it’s an identity that really masks the individual’s fear of themselves.

    In the case of ISIS, however, I’m not even sure that religion provides a useful prism to understand how the group works. It has some of the classic features of a cult in its division between insiders and outsiders and one of the effects of the barbarity it promotes must be to terrorize its own members because they know there is no life after ISIS. They have in an objective sense made themselves irredeemable. They will either die fighting for their cause or if ever captured be incarcerated for the rest of their lives.

  3. hquain

    Syd is right to point to European religious history for good analogies to ISIS. The general assumption seems to be that ISIS represents some weird outlandish phenomenon. But Europeans have experienced similar — and similarly brutal — occurrences many times from the middle ages (or even before, from the conquest of paganism) to the Nazis. And they have been definitive historical moments.

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