Religious extremism and the shadow it casts

First published 29th March 2017

In our culture it has become axiomatic to assert that religion has been the cause of wars throughout the ages. New atheists, such as Christopher Hitchens, helped cement this in the public mind and the work of groups like Al Qaeda and the so-called Islamic State or Diaes have provided plenty of evidence for the violence that religious ideology can engender. However, the assertion that religion and war are intimately linked does not bear close scrutiny as was illustrated in a lecture given in Trowbridge two weeks ago.

The speaker was a Muslim academic and Imam named Ahtsham Ali. At present Ali works for the Home Office supporting the prison service and its chaplains to counteract the influence of radical Islam. Having previously worked in schools, Ali shared an illustration from his experience as a teacher. When he asked what proportion of wars were caused by religious conflict, unsurprisingly Ali found his students believed this to be true for the vast majority. He then set them the task of looking into history and determining which wars could indeed be attributed to religious motives. As the students listed the catalogue of conflicts on a flipchart and their principal cause it became clear that only a minority could be put down to religion; it took a couple of flipchart sheets before even one turned up.

The terrorist atrocities in EU countries, most recently those in Paris and the heightened security that has been a feature of our lives since 9/11 and 7/7, reinforces the connection between religion and acts of violence and especially with Islam. Yet non-religiously motivated terrorism greatly outweighs that motivated by religion; the significance of domestic terror akin to that in the Basque region and the murderous activities of Far Right groups and Animal Rights activists, seem to have slipped from public consciousness.

Lord Sacks, the former Chief Rabbi, compares religion to an energy which can be used for good or ill, just like nuclear power. With respect to war and terrorism it is greed, power, ego, self-interest and imperialism which play a much greater part in the generation of violence than religion per se. Yet in asserting that religion is not pre-eminent we cannot, and must not, ignore the place religion can and does play in the promotion or justification of armed conflict and terrorism. Today the problem for countries like the UK is how we can protect ourselves from the threat of Islamic extremism without demonizing Islam itself, and this is not proving straightforward.

Earlier in the year at a meeting of the Board of Education for Bristol Diocese, members registered concern around elements of the Prevent strategy being rolled out in schools across the region. Their anxiety was that in counteracting Islamic extremism other significant expressions of extremism seemed to be neglected and there was a danger of casting a shadow over Muslims in general. In the question time following the lecture, a Muslim from Wiltshire described Islamic extremism as the ghost on every street in his community, echoing Alis description of a climate in which younger generations were growing up with a negative view of Islam even in Muslim families.

Religious extremism does not necessarily lead to violence but Ali pointed to several characteristics which are strongly associated with it. Chief among them are a belief that the ends justify the means, admiration of a charismatic leader, a degree of paranoia (Them versus Us) and the derogation of responsibility. Although those who embrace extremist Islam may have mental health issues (some 20% of fighters) or been involved in petty crime (80%), highly intelligent men and woman may also be drawn in. The example was given of a pharmacologist with a PhD who had joined a cultic Sufi sect. Apparently he said if his Sufi teacher (a Sheik) said that snow was black he would go and have his eyes tested. Ali asked him whether he should get his brain tested!

It is this derogation of responsibility that can be so frightening in extremism. The pharmacologist admitted relief that he no longer needed to think for himself. But derogation is not confined to the religious arena and secular ideologies have bred their share of violent extremism as the Holocaust in Nazi Germany, the Gulags in Soviet Russia and the Killing Fields of Cambodia amply illustrate. Lord Sacks says that every reflective human being must ask three questions: Who am I? Why am I here? How shall I live? These are questions which the market, science and technology may aspire to address but have not succeeded. Religion will never be a thing of the past, asserts Sacks, because it does address these questions. They are integral to the human condition because they are about our identity and purpose.

As we face the challenge of Islamic extremism in the UK we would do well to remember how the secularist Jurgen Habermas changed his view of religion after 9/11. What happened caused him to differentiate between reasonable religion and the kind which causes men and women to kill hundreds of innocent people in the name of God. There will always be expressions of religion which are extreme and dangerous, including corruptions of the Christian faith. Our task today must be to support Muslims in the UK to bring extremism into the light and remove any shadows which hang over Islam itself.

Rt Revd Dr Lee Rayfield

Bishop of Swindon

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