Walter Lacqueur: The fate of fanaticism

Roundup: Historians' Take

[Mr. Laqueur, a historian, is the author, inter alia, of "A History of Terrorism" (Transaction, 2001).]

It is not “the West against the rest.” All throughout human history, civilizations have coexisted and competed, and there is no good reason to assume that this will change in the foreseeable future. True, there is still considerable resistance to accepting such obvious facts as, for instance, the shrinking importance of Europe—demographically, economically, politically—even though the rise and decline of civilizations is a phenomenon as old as the hills. The position of America in the world without a strong Europe will certainly be weakened.

But looking ahead, the present threat is not really a “clash of civilizations,” but fanaticism and aggression, which are of particular importance in an age of weapons of mass destruction. There is no need to spell out where fanaticism is most rampant and dangerous at the present time. But it is less clear how durable fanaticism is, how long its intensity will last.

History seems to show that it is largely (albeit not entirely) a generational phenomenon. It seldom lasts longer than two or three generations, if that. How little time passed from the desert austerity of early Islam to the luxury of the Abbasid court in Baghdad! The impetus which led to the the Crusades petered out in several decades. More recently, in the age of secular religions such as Communism, fanaticism (even enthusiasm) evaporated even more quickly. The pulse of history is quickening in our time, everywhere on the globe.

All of which leads to the question: what undermines and weakens fanaticism, aggression and expansion—and what follows it? (In some respects this resembles the debate prompted by Leon Festinger a few decades ago: what follows if and when prophecy fails?) The importance of economic factors in this context has been exaggerated (with certain exceptions); the impact of culture (in the widest sense) has been underrated.

It is a phenomenon that can perhaps best be observed among the Muslim communities in Europe. On one hand, there has been palpable radicalization with the emergence of a new underclass, the failure in the educational process, the sense of discrimination, the search for identity and pride. There seems to have been the emergence of what was called in nineteenth-century France les classes dangereuses. But even in these social strata, it is becoming more difficult to keep the fold in line. As a leading Berlin imam put it, the road to the (fundamentalist) mosque is long, the temptations are many and “we are likely to lose about half of the young on the way.” It is a process which virtually all religions have experienced, and Islam seems to be no exception. The importance of the street gang (as yet insufficiently studied) could be as great as that of religion or ideology.

There is the contempt for Western decadence as expressed for instance in the growth of pornography denounced by Muslim preachers. Pornography has a very long history. It is a term often used loosely and arbitrarily; views and attitudes have radically changed in time and not only in Western culture. Kleist’s Marquise of ‘O, a novella published two hundred years ago, was dismissed as pornography at the time. Today it is deemed a jewel of world literature and no one would consider it particularly erotic. For centuries, there has been an erotic strain in Islamic literature, and greater experts than I have written about it. Salafis now regard it as pornography, which is haram because it is fahsha (obscenity, abomination, fornication) as stated in the Quran.

But the preachers seem not to have been too successful. The list of the countries with the most frequent surfers on the Internet looking for “sex” is headed by Pakistan, followed by India, Egypt, Turkey, Algeria, Morocco, Indonesia and even Iran. As Oscar Wilde sagely noted, he could resist anything but temptation—or as the New Testament puts it, the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak.

In brief, there is a tremendous difference between the holy writs and their exegesis and the reality in matters sexual. And this is true for many aspects of modern mass culture. After the Iron Curtain had come down and the cold war had ended, some astute Soviet observers noted that the Beatles had played a role in the breakdown of the Soviet empire. I’m in Love and Good Day, Sunshine probably did not play a decisive political role in the fall of the Soviet Union, but they were part of an underground culture which spread and contributed to the gradual subversion of the official secular religion to which everyone paid lip service.

Sexual issues and mass culture have been mentioned as a mere examples; many other factors contribute to the dissolution and breakdown of fanaticism. The point is that the fanatical impulse does not last forever, and it may peter out more quickly than we tend to think today.

But this should not lead to a feeling of great relief—the assumption that the danger has passed and that all we have to do is to sit patiently and wait. It could still be a process of a few generations, and the question arises whether that much time is left to humankind to avert a disaster (or disasters). For the first time in history, small groups of people will have the potential to cause millions of deaths and unimaginable damage; no great armies will be needed for this purpose. It is a race against time.

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N. Friedman - 1/23/2008


Again, my point remains that your assertions do not address Mr. Laqueur's article.

art eckstein - 1/23/2008

Dear RRH--Thanks. But don't expect Omar to reply to any of my facts and arguments here. Omar can't, so he doesn't try, resorting to personal vituperation as a response instead. Just read the posts below.

omar ibrahim baker - 1/23/2008

Mr Friedman
I note a relapse in the civility of your latest riposte.
I hope it is only transient.
A loss of nerves does NOT justify a move down to the level of a Professor!
You did and can do without it.

R.R. Hamilton - 1/23/2008

I could not have written anything better.

N. Friedman - 1/22/2008


Where does Laqueur say or even hint that only fanaticism by Muslims should be discussed? It seems to me that he says exactly the opposite, intending that we take a broader, not a narrow, view of fanaticism.

As for conducted assertion, that is pretty idiotic, given that the article says pretty much the opposite of what you claim.

art eckstein - 1/22/2008

That should be: books intended for Christian children in Malaysia, not "Indonesia"; and it should be: "images of Abraham and Moses"

art eckstein - 1/22/2008

Omar asserted that no other fanaticism but Islamic fanaticism was discussed by Lacqueur. That is simply false. And this has been shown by quoting from the article.

Omar's response is to REASSERT that no other fanaticism but Islamic fanaticism was discussed by Lacqueur, and to add: "this was intended and planned." But reassertion of a falsehood, and extension of it, is not an argument!

N.F. and myself have actually quoted the other fanaticisms discussed by Lacqueur in the article--discussed and compared by Lacqueur with Islamic fanaticism. Case closed.

But of course no one can deny that among the fanaticisms present in the world today, islamic fanaticism is the most violent and nihilistic in its tactics and oppressive in its goals

A minor example of the latter: today the Islamic govt of Malaysia BANNED books meant for Christian children in Indonesia on the grounds that they depicted images Abraham and Moses, and that such depiction was contrary to ISLAMIC (Sharia) law.

I'm not making this up. How long can Omar keep denying that this is going on? Just imagine what Omar would be saying about oppression if the Israeli govt banned the Koran in Israel on the grounds that it contained elements contrary to Jewish law!! (Hint to Omar: it doesn't.)

omar ibrahim baker - 1/22/2008

The present position is exactly as meant, intended and planned by Lacqueur: that no other variety than Islamic fanaticism should be discussed.
The conductor waved his baton and the chorus, the herd, obliged!
Still why did Lacqueur fail to use the title that demands to be used, that imposes itself, beats me !

By any standard had he titled it "The Fate of Islamic Fanaticism" it would have been the more accurate, pertinent and “honest” title.

Is it that he realizes that had he used that “honest” title the many readers, already sated with this mantra, would have turned away and left his piece unread?
Or is that with the title he used he hoped to lure the many avid and anxious to read about “fanaticism” would read it?
Was it, the incomplete and non descriptive title he used, in any way a "semantic" entrapment?

N. Friedman - 1/21/2008


Regarding the report you post, The New York Times contradicts the reports. See this, for an example:

Within minutes, several men dove into an opening in the rubble and pulled out an army boot, then a walkie-talkie, a bulletproof vest and a machine gun. They belonged to one of Bilal’s friends. The jovial workmen went silent as Hezbollah security men told photographers to stop taking pictures, and Mr. Jaber’s hunch was confirmed: his son was one of the militia fighters.

Mr. Kamaleldin, the Sreifa official, estimated that up to two-thirds of the town’s homes and buildings were demolished, leaving more than 43 people buried in the rubble. A majority of them were fighters belonging to Hezbollah and the allied Amal Party, residents said.

In another New York Times article ("Christians Fleeing Lebanon Denounce Hezbollah," by Sabrina Tavernise, The New York Times, July 28, 2006):

"Hezbollah came to Ain Ebel to shoot its rockets," said Fayad Hanna Amar, a young Christian man, referring to his village. "They are shooting from between our houses."

"Please,'' he added, "write that in your newspaper."

Many Christians from Ramesh and Ain Ebel considered Hezbollah's fighting methods as much of an outrage as the Israeli strikes. Mr. Amar said Hezbollah fighters in groups of two and three had come into Ain Ebel, less than a mile from Bint Jbail, where most of the fighting has occurred. They were using it as a base to shoot rockets, he said, and the Israelis fired back.

One woman, who would not give her name because she had a government job and feared retribution, said Hezbollah fighters had killed a man who was trying to leave Bint Jbail.

"This is what's happening, but no one wants to say it" for fear of Hezbollah, she said.

HRW found none of this. Eyes wide shut.


N. Friedman - 1/21/2008


That you think highly of HRW and AI does not mean that they everything they do is above board. And, regarding the Arab Israeli conflict, they have taken rather odd views for groups that are to monitor human rights rather than side with one opponent over another in a conflict. More importantly, they have abetted the efforts of Antisemitic bigots. For example:

As we arrived at our meeting the chief Durban representative of Human Rights Watch, advocacy director Reed Brody, publicly announced that as a representative of a Jewish group I was unwelcome and could not attend. The views of a Jewish organization, he explained, would not be objective and the decision on how to vote had to be taken in our absence. Not a single one of the other international NGOs objected.

In other words, these groups played politics and walked away from their commitment as monitors.


Arnold Shcherban - 1/21/2008

At least, I never doubt your "objectivity" in Israeli-Arab

N. Friedman - 1/21/2008


I was, in fact, answering your exact contention. Which is to say, what you stated is contrary to fact. Which is to say, Professor Eckstein has me exactly correct in this instance.

Not that it seems to matter to you, Laqueur has written extensively about various types of fanaticism and with substantial insight. He notes primarily Muslim fanaticism in his article because such is what is, just now, primarily on display all over the world. Other types of fanaticism are local, not International, concerns.

But, as I noted, he has, in fact, written about fanaticism by some Jews in the name of Judaism - his own background, by the way -. I would guess that he would note that, compared to today's outbreak of fanaticism by Muslims in the name of Islam, fanaticism by Jews in the name of Judaism has played only a very small in history ever including in Israel's history.

The fanaticism going on in the name of Islam is among the worst outbreaks of fanaticism since the fanaticism which gripped Germany and which gripped the Soviet Union under Lenin but more importantly Stalin.

Fanaticism in the name of Islam is, so far as I know, the only one which, at the moment, has devotees attacking people all around the entire world. And, that makes it far more important, at the moment, than what a Hindu lunatic may do in fighting with local Muslims in India. Why? Because such is confined violence. Islamic terrorism is international and, in fact, worldwide and, hence, a threat to the entire world.

art eckstein - 1/21/2008

Omar wrote the following, and I quote him exactly:

"one would wonder why did he [Lacqueur] avoid titling it with the more proper and appropriate,” The Fate of Islamic Fanaticism”; for no other variety is mentioned nor slightly broached!"

This is the very first sentence of Omar's posting at 1:35 p.m. on Jan. 20.

The assertion about Lacqueur is simply wrong. Both Christian and Communist fanaticism were indeed discussed by Lacqueur, and were overtly compared (not contrasted) with Islamic fanaticism.

Omar was simply wrong in his assertion. As usual. And, as usual, he won't admit it, preferring instead to spew ad hominem attacks when the facts are in fact pointed out to him. Sigh.

omar ibrahim baker - 1/21/2008

Why bother answering an underling?
Friedman can take care of himself and should he ever need help he will most certainly NOT look for it!
The devil is in brevity.
Lacqueur's post was about a fanaticism that could wreak havoc in present, modern times!
Neither The Crusaders nor communists variety qualify for obvious reasons.
Jewish, Hindu and Evangelist fanaticisms do qualify eminently; none was MENTIONED NOR SLIGHTLY BROACHED!

I guess that was understood by most readers including Friedman( I do not know about you !!), but being the "clever" advocate that he is he sidelined the issue of potential Jewish fanaticism by making the point he made which took you little time to mimic .
Try to come up with something original for a change..Professor !!!!!

art eckstein - 1/21/2008

Omar wrote the following on Jan. 20, at 1:35 p.m. It's at the start of the second thread:

"Lacqueur chose to title his post as “The Fate of Fanaticism” while, after reading it, one would wonder why did he avoid titling it with the more proper and appropriate,” The Fate of ISLAMIC Fanaticism”; FOR NO OTHER VARIETY IS MENTIONED NOR SLIGHTLY BROACHED!!

(my emphasis)

N. Friedman's point is simple: in the article under discussion, Lacqueur mentioned BOTH Christian crusading fanaticism and Communist athiestic fanaticism, and neither of these are Muslim. Indeed in the article, Lacqueur sought to equate Islamic religious fanaticism to these other fanaticisms which he mentioned in terms of long-term prospects..

Simple as N. Friedman's point is,--that Lacqueur prominently mentioned non-Muslim fanaticisms-- it seems to be beyond Omar. So he answers with sarcism, not understanding the point. The POINT is that Lacqueur's references to the Crusades and to Communism prove Omar--not for the first time on HNN or for that matter the twentieth time--factually wrong.

omar ibrahim baker - 1/21/2008

Mr Friedman;
"Note to Omar: The Crusaders were Christians, not Muslims. Note to Omar: the Communists were atheists, not Muslims."

For these gems of erudition and specialist and rare knowledge I can not thank you enough no matter how hard I try.

N. Friedman - 1/20/2008


I am not quite sure what your comment has to do with the topic but, nonetheless, I shall anyway address your question.

If Israel has attacked civilians qua civilians, that is something to condemn. I certainly do not support such behavior.

However, that HRW or AI claims such is the case does not impress me and convince me of anything. That they claim that Hezbollah behaved well is contradicted by innumerable credible sources who observed the very behavior first hand that HRW and AI overlooked - or, perhaps, observed with eyes wide shut.

Regarding the Arab Israeli dispute, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have not been neutral and their reports have been tendentious and polemic. So, I do not take their word as an objective observer.

You will find that, unlike other disputes, they have even taken a position on the ultimate resolution of the Arab Israeli dispute - one that in effect eliminates Israel. That violates their high principles and is contrary to their position on other displaced groups.

Further, at least one of these groups participated and reported only good things at the Durban hatefest. That tells me the type of people involved. They, to note Bernard-Henri Levy's phrase, are happy cheerleaders for the new Antisemitism that is unfolding in the world. So, I take it that they have moved outside of being a neutral watcher of human rights to being cheerleaders for bigots.

Arnold Shcherban - 1/20/2008

Question for Mr. Friedman:
Detailed on-the-ground studies by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, while highly critical of Hezbollah's responsibility for civilian deaths in Israel, have challenged the claims by the Bush and Olmert administrations that Hezbollah's alleged use of "human shields" contributed to the high numbers of civilian deaths from Israeli bombardment in Lebanon. Similarly, the reports of these credible human rights organizations have placed responsibility for the vast majority of the 800 Lebanese civilian deaths on the government of Israel. Are you willing to acknowledge that Israel was culpable for most of the Lebanese civilian deaths?
Note: Those organizations, well known to the world, have been
revealing and condemning human rights violations in all countries, regardless of their ideological/religious orientations: Left or Right, or in the Middle, Communist or Muslim or Christian for decades, and therefore cannot be considered biased against anyone.

art eckstein - 1/20/2008

N.Friedman is of course right that Laqueur talks about other fanaticisms in his article--and Omar is (for the umpteenth time) factually wrong. indeed, Laqueur made part of his scholarly career, and wrote several books, discussing not Islamic but secular left-wing terrorism (i.e., fanaticism).

Laqueur's point which Omar so objects to, is that RIGHT NOW the leading fanaticism, the most violent, the most destructive, the most nihilistic, is Islamic and that texts and precepts of Islam are continually employed as the justification for these horrible acts. Can anyone deny that this is happening, continually and on a wide scale?

Omar seeks to the subject by trying to claim (putting it as a question) that the invasion of Afghanistan was the result of Christian "Evangelical fanaticism". What is the EVIDENCE for that? EVIDENCE, please.

N. Friedman - 1/20/2008


One would do well to read a scholar like Laqueur carefully before writing nonsense. He, in fact, does refer to other fanaticism. For example, he writes:

The impetus which led to the the Crusades petered out in several decades. More recently, in the age of secular religions such as Communism, fanaticism (even enthusiasm) evaporated even more quickly. The pulse of history is quickening in our time, everywhere on the globe.

Note to Omar: The Crusaders were Christians, not Muslims. Note to Omar: the Communists were atheists, not Muslims.

omar ibrahim baker - 1/20/2008

Lacqueur chose to title his post as “The Fate of Fanaticism” while, after reading it, one would wonder why did he avoid titling it with the more proper and appropriate,” The Fate of Islamic Fanaticism”; for no other variety is mentioned nor slightly broached!
Why is THAT??
-Is it because he believes that no other variety exists? (a)
-Is it because he believes that other varieties can not possibly ever pause the threat that the Islamic variety does? (b)

(a) Is obviously a non starter for he surely knows that there is such a thing as Jewish Fanaticism and Hindu Fanaticism and Evangelist Fanaticism

(b) Though tempting could be the most dangerous to underestimate and possibly the most misleading to hold.
One has only to imagine what Jewish fanaticism would look like, and could possibly come out of it, should Israel be exposed to a strong blow from, say, Iran or Hisb Allah; or, for that matter what Hindu fanaticism would do should India receive a big blow from ,say, Pakistan!

(Was Afghanistan and Iraq the post 9/11 manifestation of Evangelist fanaticism? I wonder?)

I only wish Lacqueur gave his post the proper title it deserves and demands , for none other seems to exist as far as he is concerned.

So much water under the bridge and the conscious and deliberate disinformation , by ommission in this case, of and by Lacqueur , and the herd , goes on and on and on.

One has only to read what a Professor ?!? has to say, above and elsewhere, to know exactly what they are after.

art eckstein - 1/19/2008

Laqueur is perfectly clear that today's Muslim fanaticism is not necessarily all there is to Islam, or even the majority of Islam:

"There is no need to spell out where fanaticism is most rampant and dangerous at the present time. But it is less clear how durable fanaticism is, how long its intensity will last."

There follows a discussion about how radical imams in Europe are worried about losing the younger generation.

So, as usual, Omar can't read carefully. And since he takes any criticism of radical violent Islamists as a criticism of Islam itself, HE is the one equating radical violent Islam beliefs with Islam in general. Or perhaps he's just interesting in trying to bludgeon into silence all criticism of Muslim behavior by charging "racism" as they blow themselves and us up.

But Omar, two days ago a Sunni female sucide bomber killed 11 Shia in a MOSQUE in Iraq as they prepared for the HOLIEST day of the Shia year. Yesterday, such Sunni suicide-bombings of Shia worshipers in a MOSQUE happened twice: once in Iraq, once in Pakistan.

NO other religious community engages in such behavior. It is legitimate to question the roots of such behavior, especially since those who perpetrate it JUSTIFY that behavior on the BASIS of the religion.

1. BTW, neither the Iraqi atrocities nor the one in Pakistan have ANYTHING to do with the United States, let alone Israel. This is purely Muslim-on-Muslim hyperviolence.

To seek the religious roots of this hyperviolence, this fanatical religiously-motivated violence that disregards all decency (i.e., blowing up innocent worshippers in a mosque on the holiest day of the year), is NOT to equate Islam with its most violent adherents. But since the perpetrators THEMSELVES justify their horrors on the basis of Islamic beliefs, this means that the religious roots of this violence--in which no other religion engages--are obviously very important to investigate.

For instance, if this lawless hyperviolence is a "misinterpretation" of Islamic principles, the question remains how come this misinterpretation is so widespread among believing Muslims.

N. Friedman - 1/19/2008


If you bother to investigate before you post, you would find that Laqueur has written extensively on fanaticism of all types. In fact, he is among the most famous scholars of the topic in the world. In fact, he is among the most famous historians in the world, having written on any number of topics, bringing an extraordinary breadth and depth of knowledge thereto.

You might also note - given your singled minded obsession with the topic - that he is somewhat sympathetic to the Arab position on the Arab Israeli dispute.

Moreover, you have completely mischaracterized his views as stated in the article in issue. He does not make Islam into fanaticism. He notes very carefully "How little time passed from the desert austerity of early Islam to the luxury of the Abbasid court in Baghdad!" He also carefully distinguishes between the fanaticism which is attractive to so many Muslims today and other, less austere, periods in Islamic history.

As for your herd comment, that is a highbrowed bigoted comment. It is, frankly, about time that you learn the difference between and ad hominem attack and commentary.

omar ibrahim baker - 1/19/2008

Once again a thoughtful essay fails miserably and ends no where for failing to define one of its foundations; FANATICISM!
For Lacqueur, and the herd, it would be enough to bring in Islam for the term to be defined to their satisfaction.
It is not only that the post inanely states that Islamic fanaticism is the one and only fanaticism raging around presently but that it strongly implies that it is the only one to “…have the potential to cause millions of deaths and unimaginable damage; no great armies will be needed for this purpose. It is a race against time.”

To point out to Lacqueur that ,say, Hindu ,Jewish and Evangelical fanaticisms also do exist and could have in a different world context the same potential is not to tell him something he does not know but to point the cheap propaganda that this post of his is