Religious fanaticism takes many forms sharing one thing: malevolence. War, theatrical brutality and a desire for religious conformity are part and parcel of religious fanaticism. ISIS is simply another example of the gruesome reality of intolerant certainty attempting to enforce a world view. ISIS isn’t uniquely awful, it is normal . Under consideration are persecution, war, iconoclasm and martyrdom which are routine features of religious fanaticism.
Islam exploded out of Saudi Arabia in the seventh century spreading doctrine on the ‘point of a spear’. Spain was conquered in 711 and remained (wholly or entirely) Muslim until 1611. The Holy Land was captured and converted. This was a catalyst for the eleventh century crusading movement. In 1099 Jerusalem was conquered and the population slaughtered. Hard-core Christians then turned their attention to heretics. The 1209 massacre of Cathars in Beziers (France) was a dramatic part of the Albigensian Crusade. Currently (2016) religious fanatics in the USA intimidate, or even murder, those providing legal abortion services. Their justification is that this is god’s work. ISIS belong to a robust tradition of forcibly enforcing a version of religion.
Religious fanatics are enraged by anything that is a monument to false* beliefs. The destruction of buildings, books, artefacts and cemeteries follows logically from the notion that the world has to be purified. The revered English king Henry VIII destroyed monasteries when establishing his version of Christianity (1536-41). A century later Oliver Cromwell’s troops toured the wonders of medieval religious buildings and destroyed them. Much was saved by courageous Christians but the principal buildings and interiors were destroyed. The hysterical response to the destruction of the temple at Palmyr, Syria in 2015** misses the point. That temple celebrated pantheism and is abhorrent to ISIS religious purity. An iconoclastic solution is the only response so far as ISIS are concerned.
Martyrdom is embraced by religious fanatics. Sacrificing life, willingly, for god is well understood and is assumed to be pleasing. Islam’s elaborate description of paradise (broadly shared by Christians) encourages martyrdom. Early Christians were subject to horrific pressure by the Romans. Crucifixion, slavery, and ‘battles’ with animals in amphitheatres are all part of this historic experience. The medieval period brought the Inquisition, which created the theatrical spectacle of auto de fe, (burning at the stake) enforcing*** doctrinal purity. In the Nazi period Christians were killed for their beliefs. ISIS have perverted martyrdom by creating the suicide bomber. This development is intellectually linked to the traditions of martyrdom but lacks the purity of the paradigm.
Associated with martyrdom is a belief that engaging in dramatically dangerous activities on behalf of one’s beliefs is a divine command. Here religious fanatics wish to serve god by missionary work. Elizabethan England has many stories of Catholic priests and their congregations suffering terribly for their desire to worship in their own way. Communist China provides current evidence of the missionary zeal of ‘true believers’****. Implacable monolithic dictatorships are no protection from the desire of religious fanatics to convert the unbeliever. Execution isn’t a penalty for religious fanatics it is an endorsement of the validity of their beliefs in the certainty of their reward in heaven.
ISIS is thoroughly unpleasant and, by most ethical standards, wicked. It isn’t a unique expression of religious fanaticism. Indeed it is a standard exemplar of religious fanaticism. ISIS uses theatre to promote its ‘beliefs’, but then so did the Inquisition in the medieval period. Religious fanaticism takes religion and perverts it for psychotic reasons. ISIS, American anti-abortion murderers, crusading wars and intellectual fascism are all in the same vile tradition.
*That is, anything in contradiction to their ‘true’ beliefs.
**Stuart Jeffries Guardian 2nd September2015
***Many thousands who didn’t ‘change’ their beliefs died horrific deaths.
****Anthony E Clark China’s Modern Martyrs: from Mao to now http://www.catholicworldreport.com/Item/3025/chinas_modern_martyrs_from_mao_to_now_part_3.aspx