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Extremism and Its Remedies

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By Dr Mohd Farid Mohd Shahran
The remedy for extremism has to come from a strong rational faculty which is proper knowledge, especially one that enables man to know the proper place of things.
Among the contemporary topics which begin to gain much attention among scholars these days is the issue of extremism. This is reflected in a recent conference held on “Extremism among the Muslims in Contemporary Times: Dimensions and Manifestations”, organised by the Centre for Advanced Studies on Islam, Science and Civilisation (CASIS) of Universiti Teknologi Malaysia (UTM). This conference featured speakers like Dr Chandra Muzaffar, Prof Wan Mohd Nor Wan Daud and Datuk Dr Syed Ali Taufik al-Attas who elaborated on the theme from different points of view.
Many would agree that a growing form of extremism has emerged in recent years in many parts of the world, including religious extremism. The emergence of many radical groups such as al-Qaeda, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and their terror in Iraq, Boko Haram and their on-going atrocities in Nigeria, are some examples of extremism committed under the banner of religion.
Indeed, extremism does not only manifest for religious purposes, but rather, due to many factors, in the secular realm as well. In the United States, for example, extremism can be seen from the escalating number of crimes against school children in recent years.
According to an advocacy group called Every town for Gun Safety founded by former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg and gun-control advocate Shannon Watts, since December 2012, 74 cases of school shootings have occurred in America which come out to more than one shooting per week.
In the economy, extreme manipulation of money and wealth due to human greed has resulted in the collapse of financial institutions, bailing out of banks by governments, downturns of the stock market, unemployment and even bankruptcy of a nation.
What is the essence of extremism? Why do people become extreme? And how do we remedy extremism?
Extremism literally means something being situated at the farthest possible point from the centre. It implies a situation where something is out of balance. While the middle position will ensure stability, balance and objectivity, extremism will create imbalance, chaos and subjectivity.
In relation to man, extremism can be seen from a number of manifestations such as bigotry and intolerance, continuous commitment to excessiveness and applying pressure on others to do likewise, harshness in the treatment of others, and excessive extension of prohibition. At the most extreme level, it will lead to aggression and terror.
Yet, what is in man that causes him to be extreme? No doubt human beings are created by God in the best form. But, at the same time, human beings are also endowed with desire, a bestial nature which will draw them into extremism. Such a nature deludes them from the middle path and drags them down into the abyss of extremism.
Extremism, manifests when man fails to use his reason to guide him and control his desire. Hence, when extreme actions are undertaken by people in every regard, they are no longer guided by reason, but desire.
According to the Quran, the inclination of human beings to be extreme had already been raised by angels who questioned God’s creation of Adam (human) as the vicegerent on earth, “Will you place therein one who will make mischief therein and shed blood?” (Al-Baqarah 2:30).
However, the angels, being holy and pure in creation, only looked at the extreme part of man, and failed to look at man’s ability to use his reason to control himself and become a better vicegerent on earth. Such is the reason why God replied to the angels in the same verse, “I know what you know not.”
Thus, quite clearly, the remedy for extremism has to come from a strong rational faculty which is proper knowledge, especially one that enables man to know the proper place of things. In the Islamic tradition, such knowledge is called wisdom (Hikmah) while true actions which emerge in accordance with it is called Adab. The Quran refers to people possessing these attributes as “the people who are justly balanced” the moderates, who also play the role of true witnesses, who can properly look through a just perspective
In sum, although it is very difficult to eradicate extremism, what we can do is at least curb and control it through properly educating the masses with true wisdom and thus strengthening the moderates among them.
(The writer is Senior Fellow/Director at Ikim’s (Institut Kefahaman Islam), Centre for the Study of Shari’ah, Law and Politics. The views expressed here are entirely his own).