When Florence’s powerful patron and ruler Lorenzo de’ Medici was on his deathbed, he called for a monk to come and absolve him, but not just any monk. The man who came to his side was the religious extremist of his day, a man who would throw Florence into turmoil for the next few years, forcing people to give up everything they held dear and even to burn their most treasured possessions at his behest. His name was Girolamo Savonarola, and he was known as the mad friar of Florence.
There is nothing new about religious extremism. We have endured it throughout history and we continue to feel its effects today, not just in Muslim countries but all around us. Nor is it the sole product of the Muslim faith; religious extremists have come from other faiths too at different periods in our shared past. The solution to religious extremism is said to be democracy. Democracy promotes the need for religious tolerance and acceptance of our right to differ, but it takes time to instil. There is no magic recipe for it. You cannot implant it like a new organ in an ailing body and expect that it will take overnight. What then is religious extremism, and how does it arise?
Religious extremism means taking a set of beliefs to their very limit, and applying them. Those who do this commit themselves to promoting or carrying out purposely hurtful, violent or destructive acts against others.
Certainly in today’s world religious extremism is often about terrorist acts in the name of religion, but this hasn’t always been the case. At other times in history it was not technically about harming people but about redeeming them. You could say that it was seen as constructive extremism. It was, if you like, about imposing your views on others in a dictatorial way. The fact that this was also destructive, often only became clear with the perspective of time. History, as usual, eventually illuminates the truth because it provides us with that incredibly useful tool, hindsight. Even in present-day circumstances, with our so-called enlightened way of thinking, one day hindsight will reveal to us more than we can currently grasp about what is happening now.
Political psychologist Neil Kressel defines the mindset of the present-day religious extremist with the following characteristics:
“Idealisation of some past era combined with the belief that the world has gone awry
Declared certainty of the correctness of one’s religious vision
Complete unwillingness to compromise with those who disagree
Powerful denunciation of people with different lifestyles, especially when they involve forms of homosexuality or sexual liberality
Devaluation of events in this world and an intense focus on life after death
Willingness to assume the role of God’s ‘hit man’, defending the deity and his representatives against all perceived insults
Extreme veneration of some religious leader or leaders; Disconcerting lack of concern for earthly evidence, except of the sort sanctioned by the religious system
Routine acceptance of the desired ends as justification for unsavoury means
Adoption of numerous defensive methods for avoiding serious encounters with conflicting systems of belief and their adherents
– Dehumanising imagery of non-believers and religious outgroups (most commonly the Jews) and
Strong preference for keeping women in traditional, subordinate roles.” (The mind of the religious extremist, Neil.J.Kressel, globalbreifing.org)
This certainly gives us an idea of what it’s like to be in the head of an extremist, but how does a person become a religious extremist in the first place?
There has been a good deal of talk in the media about this lately. It is widely said that people turn to faith as a solution to past and present problems, whether it is poverty, mental instability, the fallout of political strife or even just opportunism. If we take a look at the past of Florence’s crazed friar, Girolamo Savonarola, we find some interesting and revealing answers to this question.
As a young man, Savonarola was at first nothing like an extremist. He wasn’t even particularly religious. But his life was to take a course that would push him in that direction, satisfying a good number of the requisites for becoming a religious extremist. First, he suffered what is for most people the most disappointing experience of their life, rejection. When he was nineteen, he fell desperately in love with the girl next door. Whether she returned his love or not, is not certain. But in any case he wasn’t considered good enough for her, and his suit was refused; his dreams of domestic bliss and sexual fulfilment were ruined. At the time he was studying to be a physician, but as often happens in such cases, ambition failed in the face of disappointment, and he turned to the one thing he thought could give his life meaning. He joined the Dominican order of mendicant friars; he turned to faith to find a way forward.
He threw himself into it with a fervour marked by the degree of his disappointment. No task was too humble, no penitence too hard. He believed the hand of God was guiding him; he distanced himself from his family, and claimed he was visited by apocalyptic visions of hell. In a very short time he had become a shadow of his former self. His body became weak, his face gaunt, but his mind was driven to compensate. When he arrived in Florence in 1490, terrified by temptation, both his own (since he practised self flagellation on a daily basis) and that of others, he was frantically preaching about the dangers of sin. Before long the bonfires of the vanities were burning in the Piazza della Signoria, and people were throwing their best fur coats, their art and even their false teeth onto the flames in the hope that the fire that awaited them after death would somehow be avoided.
Happily, it didn’t last. Before long the Florentines came to their senses. Savonarola was imprisoned, tortured to extract a confession of guilt then hanged with it. That is not to say that he didn’t have a point to make. His principal claim was that the clergy of his time was immoral and corrupt. This was certainly true. By the fifteenth century the Catholic clergy would stop at nothing, even murder, to gain power. But, as ever, the solution did not lie in scare mongering. If only Savonarola’s life had been different, perhaps his message would have been less extreme, but then if his life had been different he would not have become a monk in the first place. Savonarola sought solace from rejection in the one thing he decided would never let him down, faith. But even then he feared the worst. Divine wrath kept him preaching. Fear had made him a persecutor of the people. Even children became his spies, terrified by the evils of his message. A moral comes to mind: never jilt a lover. Disappointment is a powerful incentive. If we could create a society where everyone had their place, I wonder if men like Savonarola would feel the need to make their point with the full force of divine retribution. Perhaps there would be no such thing.
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