Tuesday, August 10, 2021

The Tragedy of Extremism in Pursuit of a Religious Goal

The Taliban (CFR)
The late conservative Republican senator from Arizona, Barry Goldwater, once declared that ‘Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice’. That declaration was made in 1964 as part of his acceptance speech as the Republican nominee for President against then incumbent Lyndon Baines Johnson. 

That sounds like a lofty goal. Who can be against the zealous pursuit of liberty? But extremism is never a good idea. Even when pursuing a lofty goal. When extremism is at play there are almost always casualties along the way. Liberty for some is tyranny for others.

I believe that applies even more so to religion. 

There is of course no limit in serving God. Ideal service requires a great deal of religious fervor. Which is the optimal way of serving God. Twice a day we recite the Shema - part of which says that we must love our God with all of our heart, soul, and might! Nothing lukewarm about that. So what’s wrong with a little extremism towards that goal? 

Nothing unless that extremism affects others negatively. That is when all bets are off. That is when extremism becomes a Chilul HaShem. So when, for example religious extremists spit at a 7 year old little girl because they believe she violates modesty standards - then pursuit of religion turns into a terrible Chilul HaShem. The same thing is true when Religious Zionist extremists torch the home of an innocent Palestinian living on the West Bank – killing members of the family that were in it. Which is much worse than spitting on a little girl - as disgusting as that is! 

The problem with religious extremists is that they believe that God is on their side. And when that is the case, it is almost impossible to fight them or dissuade them from their zealous behavior. They will often cite Pinchas, the first zealot in the Torah, as their model. Not understanding that the time and circumstances were radically different then, than they are now. 

It isn’t only Judaism that has religious extremists. History is replete with religious fanatics that have committed all kind of atrocities in the name of God. The Roman Catholic church had the Crusaders, where - as an enticement for volunteers -the pope of that medieval period passed out ‘indulgences’ like candy. Allowing the Crusaders to rape, murder, and pillage Jews with impunity on their way to conquering Jerusalem. 

In our day it is the Muslim world. Their extremists are the most dangerous extremists in the world right now. And because their extremism is religious, I don’t think they can be stopped.

They believe they are doing it for God. Just like the Crusaders of old and the abovementioned Jewish extremists of our day. The difference is that their numbers are huge and they are wide spread. From Iran, to ISIS, to the Taliban.  There really isn’t much difference between their versions of extremism. 

They believe that not only is God on their side, but that in pursuit of their religious goals they will be given the ultimate eternal reward. So that even if they die in the process, that reward will be forthcoming immediately in heaven. That is the nature of religious extremism. They do not give up. They just keep on coming until they reach their goal. Dying for the cause is a badge of honor for them and their families. 

That is why Afghanistan is a lost cause. The Taliban are the ultimate extremists and nothing is going to stop them. Especially in a country that is filled with mountains and caves that are impossible to overcome militarily. 

The former Soviet Union (FSU) found that out the hard way back in the 80s when they sent troops to fight the Mujahedeen. They were seen as the religious ‘freedom’ fighters trying to wrest control from the newly formed ‘Godless’ communist regime at the time. Which of course the FSU supported. The US sided with the Mujahedeen - seeing them as fighting for their religious freedom. The  FSU finally gave up and  Mujahedeen ultimately won that 9 year war. Only today they are no longer called the Mujahedeen. They are called the Taliban .   

We are now finally learning the lessons the FSU learned over 30 years ago. You cannot win a war with religious extremists that see dying for their cause to be the ultimate service to God.

Back then when the FSU left Afghanistan, the Mujahedeen took over. Today, as the US leaves Afghanistan, the Taliban are taking over. With increasing speed. After 20 years of American troops fighting and dying - that country is going back to the way they were before we got there. There is no bargaining with religious fanatics willing to kill and die for God. In their eyes their goal is God's goal. 

All the hard fought freedoms that Afghans have won over the past 20 years will soon disappear without a trace. They will once again become a country ruled by the most extreme form of Islam. And there is not a damn thing anyone can do about it. Never was.

What about our own religious extremists? It appears that the same thing applies. They too think that God is on their side. And nothing will stop them either.