Dear Zealots

Amos Oz defangs zeal, undermining it, by seeing its roots in every human being. All of us have an inner extremist. Recognising that we can become more liberal. If that seems too incremental, partial and vulnerable a response to threat, a stronger response makes us the image of the extremist.

While “no man is an island,” no one should simply be subsumed by the community, collective, Volk Umma or People. That is the desire of the fanatic, who desires our good, says Oz: made exactly like him with his understanding and outlook, we and the whole world would be blessed. I disagree, here: some Muslim fanatics want to defend the Muslims against the domination of the faithless, who must be driven back. The fanatic in Pakistan wants the blasphemer, often a Christian whose neighbours take against them and give the uncorroborated evidence required, put to death. But in each case there is a single idea of the good life which must be enforced.

Through my own ridiculous desire to call myself female, and the Jew’s dangerous desire to worship separately from the surrounding peoples, I know that the rational, obvious normal way of being can be a poison, and that allowing people to plough their own way is necessary so that we will not sicken and die.

And the fanatic view has enough power to bind together a community or cell and to continue despite oppression. That Addiction to drugs and pornography not only infuriates God but destroys the lives of the addicts themselves has a grain of truth.

My God is in my image as the fanatics’ is made in theirs: their God agrees with them about what is abominable- gender diversity, perhaps, just as my God objects to its suppression in the interests of freedom for all.

With whom do we sympathise? Oz, remembering being a child throwing stones at soldiers- the British, at the fag end of the Mandate- sympathises with Palestinian children throwing stones rather than just his fellow Israelis pointing guns at them. As a child in Jerusalem I myself was a little Zionist-nationalist fanatic- self-righteous, enthusiastic and brainwashed. Possibly his experience of the siege of Jewish areas of Jerusalem, violence against himself and those he loved, could have made him an oppressor, but rather he realised that there were more than one way of seeing things, and that gave him his open heart and capacious soul. Now he points to the source of fanaticism in his fellow Israelis, European Jews wanting to create a New Hebrew, and ultra-Orthodox fanaticism seeking to defend itself against anything different within a walled ghetto. Anti-fanaticism must begin with those with whom you have most in common.

Fanatics live in a black and white world, of clear Good and Evil. They are conformists. They want a Hero, a prophet or guide, to absolve them of the pain of thinking. Conformism, where we blindly follow, is a road to the fanatic exclusion of the Other, following celebrities or celebrity politicians like ABdP Johnson or Donald Trump, who entertain their followers rather than propose a beneficial, possible programme for government. These followers relinquish their right to a rich and diverse life, their freedom to think, to consider, to make choices and change their minds.

How blessed it is, to see the value of independent thought, however challenging or painful it might be, however inconsistently or incoherently one exercised it.

A sense of humour, and the ability to make fun of ourselves, might be a way to escape fanaticism. Or imagination, seeing the reality behind a slogan. It is easier to say “The Jews must kill all the Arabs” if you don’t imagine yourself faced with an orphan baby to kill. Curiosity might help too. Oz, the writer, tells of making interminable meetings in cafes of his parents and their friends go more quickly by imagining stories about people he saw. But others than writers might want to peep behind their neighbour’s drawn curtains, to find how they think.

But in enforcing these ways to cure fanaticism one would become fanatic- as we know what is good for everyone, they must be forced into our mould.

No man is an island, but Oz says we may be best as a “Peninsula”- close, without being assimilated. Everyone wants to influence others, and that is OK as long as we don’t force them. That balance, admitting the difficulty of drawing the line between undue influence and selfish independence, is perhaps the best inoculation against fanaticism: to admit there are no easy answers.

The image is taken from Paintings in Proust, who wrote as in the radiance of intervening light of a half-opened door, Venteuil’s little phrase appeared, dancing, belonging to another world. I love how the child in shadow looks out into light unseen, and the way the mother’s face is picked out by light against a shaded background.

All comments welcome.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.