It is no coincidence that in some Western countries, whose constitutions clearly stipulate protecting freedom of expression and political affiliation, neo-Nazi groups are banned without exception, both in terms of adherence and practice, and that those who violate this law are punished. Though it may not seem that way to some, this is not in fact a case of hypocrisy or even a retreat from respecting individual freedoms.
Nazism is banned because it is an extremist, fascist, nationalist ideology that represents a direct threat to the nation. Its own bloody history is relatively recent, and its fires still burn under the ashes of the destruction it wrought during the last century. Extremist ideas are present everywhere, but since Nazi extremism is very dangerous, liberal countries that cherish freedoms above all else have decided not to tolerate it.
In the Middle East, our version of nationalist fascism is religious extremism, which is just as dangerous and destructive. Most people who belong to extremist religious movements are misled and naïve, truly believing that extremism elevates the status of their own religion above all others and complements their duties as believers.
Nazis believe in elevating the white race above all others. The madness of Nazism resulted in the complete destruction of large parts of Europe, with 60 million people killed in the process. After this disaster, the majority took it upon itself not to allow this extremist ideology to dominate in their societies ever again. One can be religious, patriotic and nationalistic without being committed to eliminating others.
Right now there is a fear that we in the Middle East are at the beginning of a road to a similar kind of destruction because we have allowed extremists to impose their agendas on our societies, intimidate wise clerics, attract opportunists, and exploit history to seek vengeance against others—not to mention being shamelessly selective regarding religion and choosing whatever suits their interests. Let there be no doubt that we are fully aware of the seriousness of the situation these extremists are dragging us into.
Take the lessons we learned from Al-Qaeda not long ago. In the 1990s and during the first decade of this century, we realized that we could not allow Al-Qaeda and other similar groups to spread their ideas, recruit young people, and attempt to dominate the cultural and political landscapes by using sectarian slogans.
Confronting these groups is everyone’s responsibility. Governments especially have major roles to fulfil here, their core task being to provide protection from the evils of extremist groups that operate across different borders in the region.
What is happening in Syria and Iraq represents achievements for both Sunni and Shi’ite extremists. The current collective murder and displacement we have recently witnessed is unlike anything in our history, and the massive destruction is beyond anyone’s imagination.
We are also aware of the politically motivated attempts by some governments to exploit this situation in order to achieve their own aims, with the extremist groups functioning as proxies across the region. Fighting and rejecting these groups is thus the collective responsibility of both governments and individuals.
Extremists have succeeded at confusing people’s perceptions regarding what is just and what is unjust, who is friend and who is foe. They are also attempting to divide people by categorizing them according to sect, ethnicity, as well as good and evil—to the extent that ideas of alternative identity have sometimes superseded loyalty to one’s country, something that is supposed to take precedence over one’s allegiance to even the tribe or the sect, and ensures everyone has the same rights and responsibilities.
Amid this poisonous atmosphere, it is the concept of patriotism that is most under threat, and not individual groups and minorities as some think. Destroying the civil ladder and dividing societies harms the backbone of the state and its overall structure. However, persecuted groups always survive no matter how besieged, pursued or displaced they become. States have collapsed, but these groups have endured throughout the centuries.
Dangerous extremism is expanding, and it requires serious restraints. It is not acceptable for a university teacher, mosque preacher, or government employee to incite against certain social categories, and the government bears the ultimate responsibility for such acts because they employ these people.
Meanwhile, governments themselves refuse any hint of betrayal and punish whoever violates their laws. The extremists, on the other hand, whether they know it or not, are destroying the state’s overall structure from its very base. They are more dangerous to society than foreign enemies, who fail when people are united and succeed only when there are domestic disputes and divisions.
What necessitates a law that criminalizes racism and sectarianism is the collective stance of the religious clerics, intellectuals and social leaders who voiced support for unity and considered the recent suicide bombings at Shi’ite mosques in Saudi Arabia as attacks against all of them. Dozens of writers, thinkers and people of conscience wrote, protested and spoke out in condemnation of the attacks.
This was the biggest solidarity campaign Saudi Arabia has ever known. And, certainly, the Saudi King’s laudable statement against extremism last week encouraged this strong collective voice of condemnation. These examples of vociferous rejection of extremism have effectively rubbished the extremists’ claims about their popularity and influence, and confirmed that the state can lead a project to eliminate extremism before it begins to spread its rot through society’s strongest and most crucial pillar: its youth.