04.17.08

Path to Extremism – A Personal Account 1: The Conflict

Posted in Extremism, Islam at 1:16 pm by Haider

The greatest difficulty we encounter when trying to understand the phenomena of “extremism” is that we do not recognize the mindset of the extremists. We usually reduce it to simplistic origins, such as poverty, the feeling of being social outcasts or even mental illness. George W. Bush tried to explain why the terrorists attacked the US on 9/11 because “they hate our freedoms,” without realizing that this hatred for freedom is not the root cause of extremism, but only a by-product of it.

In this article I offer an insider’s perspective on what extremism means, and what it’s true origins are. This is a personal account of how I became an extremist, and why I chose that path.

I should first note that I will not be giving a full analysis of my extremist beliefs, or why I chose to abandon them later on. This I will leave for some follow-up posts. I would also like to point out that not all the beliefs that I mention here are wrong, but I include them as part of my reasoning at the time, to help give a complete picture of my thinking process. Although not all extremists may have had the same starting point as me, but there will be common elements shared by all extremists.

Extremism Begins with the Mind

It is ridiculous to blame social conditions for fostering extremism. You don’t tackle extremism by fighting poverty. You must tackle extremism by addressing the ideas that lead to extremism. And while social conditions can certainly act as a catalyst, extremism begins with the mind. How we perceive ourselves and the conditions in which we live in is what determines if we will become extremists or not. As I will reveal in this post, extremism often begins with noble aims. The basis of extremism is not hatred or destruction, as many people would have us believe. My personal experience has given me an appreciation for understanding how easily one can fall for extremism, and continue on that path, without realizing how destructive it is.

Changing My Surroundings

Most opportunities for change in oneself begin with a change in surroundings. We often continue thinking and behaving in the same way, as long as we are leading the same lifestyle, doing the same chores, going to the same places, meeting the same people and reading the same material. By default, we are influenced by our surroundings. As long as we’ve become numb to a large degree to external stimuli, we lack the motivation to think differently. Our thoughts are dependent on our experiences. Experience the same routine, and your mind will not feel it necessary to analyze your life any differently to how it has already analyzed it. Give it a new experience, and your mind will work to make sense of it, and may possibly re-evaluate your previous conditions.

The opportunity that helped me re-evaluate my life was when I left high school for university. I was in different surroundings, with different people. I wasn’t doing the same things or saying the same jokes, or thinking the same thoughts. I didn’t have to fill a role that I was filling in high school. I didn’t have to fulfill the expectations others had of me. I didn’t simply leave for university. I was handed over to myself to take elsewhere. I had to decide what to do with me now, and began to retrace my steps and asked myself whether I should continue on the same path or not.

An Inner Conflict

I touched on my reasons for becoming religious in my “About Me” page, but will give a more detailed account here.

My journey to extremism began, not out of poverty or hatred towards others, but an intense feeling of hypocrisy for having the reputation of being religious, while being selective on what I was “religious” about. The label “religious” is usually referred to one who chooses his actions according to God’s instructions. I chose my actions partly on God’s instructions, and partly on what I felt like doing. But if this was the case, then I didn’t really choose my actions *because* God has instructed me to, but because it became a habit to. I didn’t possess the principle of obeying God, but, due to my upbringing, have accepted that there are things I should do, and things that I shouldn’t. Therefore, I didn’t deserve the label of being “religious,” and I certainly couldn’t tell others to obey God, when I only did so by default, out of obedience to my parents. I couldn’t tell others to observe one part of Islam while I gave myself permission to ignore another part.

This feeling was so unbearable that I felt I no longer deserved the title, and didn’t want to be known as “religious.” But rather than announce this to the world, I thought to myself: “If I’m not following Islam fully, and only do so when it serves me, should I abandon the rest of Islam, or seek to follow it completely?”

During high school I would participate in sectarian debates between Shia and Sunni beliefs. I would argue with my friends, and be surprised how they wouldn’t accept my beliefs, when the evidence was so obvious. I expected them to be willing to abandon the beliefs they were brought up with, and embrace a new belief. But I didn’t know if I’d be willing to do the same, or whether I strongly believed in my sect because of the evidence that I saw, or that I saw the evidence according to my beliefs. Was I being fair in my reading of the evidence? Did I jump to conclusions to support my beliefs?

These questions contributed to the hypocrisy that I felt: I should be willing to fulfill any expectation I have of others. Was I really prepared to do what I expected others to do? How did I reach the certainty in my own beliefs? According to my beliefs themselves? How much did I invest in understanding other sects or religions? Did I approach other beliefs with the willingness to accept them if they were true?

I couldn’t ignore these issues, especially while pretending to represent something more than what I really am.

Resolving the Conflict

It wasn’t out of devotion to Islam that I became religious, but a desire to know the truth for what it is, and not to accept any falsehood masquerading as the truth.

At that point I wasn’t too clear on how to determine what the truth was, especially since I was never taught how this can be done. I was always taught to accept beliefs, and to know some of their reasons. But I took the beliefs for granted. I accepted them without questioning their validity. What I did acknowledge was that there is a way to know the truth, and before I could find out what the truth is, I had to discover what this way was.

Before making this discovery, I vowed that I will never abandon the truth, regardless of where it would take me. I wasn’t prepared to sacrifice the truth for my personal interests, or in order to please my parents, or my friends or anyone else. Most of my thinking was done while I addressed myself, and sometimes addressing God. And when I made this vow with myself, I knew that I didn’t really know for certain whether God existed, or if it was part of the beliefs that I inherited blindly. I also acknowledged that I didn’t understand evolution or philosophy fully to be able to think about this issue properly. But as part of my vow I added, addressing God: “And if I find out that you do not exist, I’m prepared to abandon my belief in you.”

I didn’t place any restrictions on myself, and didn’t want to have any attachment to anyone or anything that would compromise my pursuit of the truth. I thought about the Prophet, and what he might say if he saw me questioning his religion, or whether God approved of my venture. But if the Prophet came to bring the truth, then he will not be offended if one of his followers was sincere in his quest to find the truth. In fact, I knew that he would be proud of me for being honest with myself. And if God expected people to embrace Islam, then he also expected them to question their existing beliefs. And if the differences between the Islamic sects was important, then the follower of each sect should also be willing to objectively view the beliefs of the other sects, so that they can come to embrace the right sect.

The First Step

I was aware of my limited knowledge and ability to discover the truth for myself, and one of the things I wanted to resolve was the conflict between knowing the truth and acting on it. Throughout my whole life I believed Islam to be the true religion, but I didn’t treat it as such. I was prepared to know the truth, but act against it. I was prepared to know what’s right and do what’s wrong. Therefore, the first step I took was to bridge the gap between what I think is right, and what I do. Even if my beliefs are wrong, but I think them to be true, then I should be acting on them, so long as I believe them to be true. There should never be a contradiction between knowing the truth and acting on it.

This is why, before confirming whether Islam is the true religion or not, I began to pray on time, and tried my best to follow it fully, as much as I could. This would mean that I am resolving the conflict in my character (of knowing the truth and acting against it), but was searching for the truth at the same time. If I was to discover that I prayed incorrectly, or at the wrong times, or didn’t have to pray at all, I’d be prepared to make the shift, as long as it was what I believed to be true.

I wanted to be like clay that can be moulded in whatever way that suits the truth. I didn’t want to have any rigidity in my character that may reject the truth simply because it didn’t suit me.

5 Comments »

  1. Lama said,

    April 18, 2008 at 9:15 am

    I liked the post a lot, and can’t wait to know how your journey went.

    I would like to high light the part of the vow you made to yourself, which I consider it as the turning point in all the spiritual experience I heard about them , the willingness to surrender to what you believe is the truth (at a certain point of time) and the courage to continue in that path where ever it will take them . It is not an easy commitment, especially that this might affect being “accepted” from the people you care a bout them the most (family, friends) and your reputation in society.

  2. Skinnybumblebee said,

    April 18, 2008 at 5:37 pm

    why dont you write a book?!

  3. Haider said,

    April 18, 2008 at 6:31 pm

    @Lama: Thank you for your feedback.

    You’re definitely right. That decision is the turning point. Everything after that is one’s commitment to that decision.

    In the upcoming parts I’ll touch on my spiritual beliefs, but won’t deal with them in-depth because I wish to address the issue of extremism here.

    Welcome to the blog :)

    @Skinnybumblebee: I’m planning on writing a book, but don’t have the time for it, at the moment. It might be easier for me to write a book than an article, because my writing is long-winded :S

  4. Bashar said,

    April 19, 2008 at 9:22 am

    Thanks. Nice post. I like your approach to things. I personally stopped arguing anyone in the face about Islam or anything else for one simple reason. People just hate to be wrong, and won’t accept defeat and slam of all their beliefs. Instead, now if I want to discuss, I usually say my believe in the phrase “I believe that… ” or “My experience taught me that” rather than “It is true that…” or “Islam is…” Then, I wait and listen for the other part and what’s his point of view. See the matter from his end, if there is anything I feel I should reply to I go like “I may be wrong here, but… ” or “But what do you think then of…”

    Those things usually I found out makes conversation less stress, and at least does not cut the line of communication. Also, I get to understand why the other person has different opinion, and perhaps be able to address it in the future.

  5. Haider said,

    April 19, 2008 at 2:17 pm

    Bashar, I agree with you. The post *is* nice :P

    On a more serious note, the defensive attitude towards discussions defeats the whole purpose of the discussion. I don’t understand why people get into discussions in the first place if they’re not willing to consider what the other is saying.

    And you’re right, sometimes when you re-word your argument as a possibility, people consider it, rather than state it as fact, in which case they try to defend what they already believe in.

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