Purity and Extremism

I recently posted a review of Reza Aslan’s book Beyond Fundamentalism and explained how he takes to task all versions of extremism, though his focus was on Islamic fundamentalism.

He addressed the purity emphasis of the Jihadist movement, noting that the Jihadists “consider themselves to be the only true Muslims. All other Muslims are imposters or apostates who must repent of their ‘hypocrisy’ or be abandoned to their fate.” He goes into great detail re the rivalry and hostility within the Muslim extremists as each sect tends to attempt to set itself apart as “the true Muslim” faith.

I’m personally sensitive to this type of lunacy as I grew up in a Southern conservative Christian sect which taught that it was the only true church. And within that sect there was the same “purity” emphasis which included, of course, moral purity but also doctrinal purity. The latter in particular often gave rise to dissension and “splitting” of churches.

Purity is a dangerous notion.  But when it is overly emphasized, one needs to beware as lunacy is beckoning. To be human is to recognize ambivalence, to recognize the presence of good and bad in all human hearts. Those that can’t handle ambivalence gravitate toward some form of extremism.

I strongly recommend Mary Douglas’s book, Purity and Danger.  Douglas approaches the purity notion from an anthropological stance and provides insight into its origin and function in tribal cultures.  And her observations are relevant to our particular “tribe”.


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