Sunday, February 22, 2009

Fanaticism, Amos Oz , Johann Hari

Israel and Palestine! A 60 year old conflict that is arguably the source of much of the Islamic world’s anger. I have always found it difficult to reconcile myself with the Western world’s support of Israel. After all, the Jewish claim to the Holy Land is a bit like the Hindu claim to Ayodhya – based on faith in a mythology that can never be scientifically proved. Of course, in the modern context, might has always been right. So when Israel has won two wars against their Arab neighbours, they are entitled to the right of spoils for the victor, I suppose.


Why am I writing about this? Because I have just encountered an interesting Israeli writer – Amoz Oz. His little book intriguingly called Help Us To Divorce is actually the text of two speeches he delivered on his proposed solution to the problem. These speeches are not very recent, but they are pretty topical, and will be, I guess till the Palestinian problem is solved for good.

Good fences make good neighbours, said Robert Frost. Amoz Oz recommends the same to solve the conflict his nation has been embroiled in since its inception. Divide the territory, build a fence. Israel and Palestine. Two nations, one asking for recognition from the Arab world and the other asking for territory to call its own. Kind of a sensible resolution, it would seem? Apparently not. There is far too much passion invested, far too much history, much too less common sense on both sides of the divide.

As a nation that has encountered the trauma of a divorce in its recent past, India knows it is not easy. But we also know it was probably for the best in the long term. So Oz’s recommendation, as articulated in the first essay (and in the Geneva Accord, that he is a co-author of) seems sensible though difficult, especially in the current scenario with stances on both sides hardening.

His second essay in the same book, How to Cure a Fanatic, is interesting because it goes beyond the immediate problem. It is Oz’s thoughts on what makes a fanatic and what can unmake them. He should know. He has lived all his life in the midst of fanatics – Jews on one side and Muslims on the other. “The seed of fanaticism always lies in uncompromising righteousness”, he says. Be it the anti-smokers or the vegetarians, the anti-abortionists or the pacifists; the fanaticism gene he says lies in all of us, all around us. “The essence of fanaticism lies in the desire to force other people to change”, he says. And while the suggestions he has to unmake the fanatic might seem idealistic and hard to do at an immediate level, it does make sense for parents and teachers to keep them in mind while bringing children up. The enemy of a fanatic is ‘imagination’, he says. If you are able to imagine the other, you will be less inclined to kill him. In fact, it is the one exercise activists working with children in strife-torn areas always do – get children to imagine what it is like to be the enemy. So injecting imagination into a society is one way to strangle fanaticism. Injecting humour is another. When people can laugh at themselves, when they can see the humour in any situation, it tends to be difficult to take oneself or one’s cause too seriously. It is an interesting look at one of the plagues of our time.

Talking about fanaticism, the protests in Calcutta against the Statesman that published Johann Hari’s article on standing up for the right to criticize religion are bizarre. Read the article in question here and his response to the furore created, here. Both superb pieces that everyone who feels strongly about secularism should read.

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