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Religion, Extremism, Violence, and Faith


There has been much debate in the media and society at large about what the proper terminology should be for the religious extremist groups behind a growing terrorist threat in the Middle East and throughout the world. The Obama administration has taken center stage in this debate for not referring to self-proclaimed Islamic terrorists as part of “Islamic extremism.” The administration has opted for the term “violent extremism.”

For me this topic transcends the names we assign to various extremist groups. This is a multi-layered subject and what gets lost in the shuffle is the pivotal role that faith itself plays into our religious and cultural attitudes toward each other.

In defense of the President and his administration’s reluctance to use the word “Islamic” in connection with “violent extremism” there are three points that we must consider relating to foreign policy and national security.

First, the President needs the help and support of Islamic leaders throughout the Middle East to combat extremism and especially ISIS. He cannot afford any confusion in his terminology referring to the enemy. Second, in addition to religious affiliations there are political and cultural struggles going on for power and control between the Shia and Sunni along with the offshoots of each and among other regional groups. Third and critically, aspects of the Islamic religion are in fact misrepresented and used as recruiting tools by Islamic extremists to legitimize their cause and get more fighters on board who are avid believers and willing to die in the name of their religion.

At the same time, throughout the world the amount of violence linked to Islamic extremism either directly from the leadership of various radical groups or by the fanaticism they inspire is substantial. To slap an ambiguous label onto it may not serve in the best interest of identifying the problem. Additionally there is a sensitive politically correct climate which labels any criticism of Islam as “Islamophobia.” I would absolutely agree that we must avoid sweeping generalizations and paranoia. However, there is a point where my openness to “political correctness” concerning the relationship between any assortment of religious extremists and their respective faith begins to run short.

Although any given extremist group or oppressive religious cultural norm may have other economic or political motivations, faith is the contrivance that establishes allegiance to a cause. Furthermore, when examining the nuances of any religious fanaticism you almost always discover that many of the tenets held by the zealots are not as confined to the fringes of the religious mainstream as they first may seem.

Claiming that Jihadism has no real role or connection to Islamic fundamentalism is akin to saying Christianity had nothing to do with the Crusades. We could talk around Christianity’s influence of the Crusades in the same way we talk around Islamic extremism. 

Crusaders were not representative of all Christians. What really was at play was a grab for territory and power. They were using a perversion of the Christian faith to recruit followers and evoke the name of God in their conquests.

There is some truth in those statements as there is when referencing similar points in regard to Islamic extremism. However, to discount the role of the Christian faith in the systemic political and cultural mix of motivations and moral superiority behind the Crusades would be wrong. 

A modern incarnation of this type of danger is ISIS which is as large as an army, well financed, and becoming a threat to entire nations in the region. In addition to their inflated Islamic tenets they also embody an ideology that holds the west as an enemy of Islam as a whole. To ignore these rudiments of their beliefs would be a miscalculation in the analysis of the enemy.

Advocates of using the term “violent extremists” as opposed to “Islamic extremists” point out that extremists are only a small portion of the Muslim population and they do not reflect the beliefs of the majority as a whole. This is very true. In fact, Muslims are often the victims of Islamic extremism. We must also certainly acknowledge the many Muslims who have fought against violent extremists. However, stating that violent extremism is only a small non-representative portion of the Muslim population as a simple matter of fact is minimizing the overall size of the threat for everyone in its path.

It is true that only one or two percent or even a fraction thereof of Muslims fall into an extremist category. The vast majority of Muslims are also non-violent. However, regarding a religion that reportedly has 1.6 billion followers those small percentages reflect millions of people.

A litmus test for measuring the scope of religious extremism would be burning a holy book. If an official of the United States burned The Bible on the Capitol steps there would be some unhappy Christians for sure. Pat Robertson would have to go on oxygen. However, if the same thing would be done to a Quran there would be chaos all over the world. Every United States military base and embassy would be battening down the hatches because of outraged Islamic extremists.

Violent retribution sparked by such things as videos and cartoons deemed as religious desecration by Islamic Extremists are also widespread and are hardly a small problem. Christians were offended by the 1987 Piss Christ, distastefully depicting a crucifix submerged in urine. However, when it was exhibited in New York that year one could make the argument that it was more beautiful than The Mona Lisa. Why? Because we live in a country that extols the separation of church and state along with free speech and an artist can exhibit such a work of “art” and not be executed. They are principles that we should never be apologetic about. 

Moreover, some of the oppressive ideals held by Islamic Extremists are in fact shared by wider segments of Islamic culture. In Yemen married men can be sentenced to death by stoning for homosexual intercourse. Under Saudi Arabia's interpretation of Sharia Law, a married man engaging in sodomy or any non-Muslim who commits sodomy with a Muslim can be stoned to death. Likewise in accordance with Sharia Law in Iran, homosexual intercourse between men can also be punished by death. Similar penalties exist from region to region for leaving the Islamic faith or adultery. I could go on here but you get the idea.

Furthermore, to pretend that the faith held by any religious extremist has nothing to do with his or her violent actions is a canard. Islamic extremists often conduct religious rituals before conducting a suicide attack and believe their actions are in service to God. What I have never heard any world leader address is the dangers of such radical and ardent faith itself.

There is a certain amount of crazy associated with religion in general. You can sometimes notice that moderately religious people are aware of this as they discuss the extent of their faith and distance themselves from the more radical elements. “Oh yeah I’m religious but you know not real religious.” In other words they are the right amount of crazy. There is a fine line between the faith that can move mountains and the faith of a terrorist organization. Sometimes to fall into the depths of religious extremism all we need is a little push.

Especially when we are depressed or in need of inner strength the desire for faith and purpose can often leave us vulnerable. Certain preachers who are far from taking a vow of poverty are happy to provide emotional sanctuary to you in the form of a lavish church along with eloquent sermons. Why wouldn’t you want to help them spread the word to shine the light on others by making a donation? Maybe you can take a bit of that feel good stuff home in the form of a copy of their new book or a subscription to their newsletter? Similar stratagems are implemented by many psychics, mediums, and other faith entrepreneurs. It is among the world’s oldest slights of hand.

In more dangerous situations faith can become a facilitator of extremism among a mix of unscrupulous things in areas of the world that undergo continual religious and political turmoil. When certain religious factions or economic groups feel oppressed it opens the door for the susceptible to have a faith in something greater than themselves and to belong to a cause. This is the perfect environment for the rise of radicalism. As this radicalism gains momentum it also obtains the allure of power. This power along with far-reaching religious and ideological rhetoric recruits new members from all over the world and from all walks of life. It can happen anywhere and is from the same petri dish that yields a cult. 

The power and manipulation of religious faith cannot be understated in regard to terrorism. It can be very comforting when someone is dying to hear that there is something better after life. At the same time this devaluation of life in the present can be a powerful incentive in persuading someone to strap on a bomb and blow up people in a crowded marketplace. The young, who often have a sense of immortality to start with, are the easiest to convince that their actions will result in a special place in the paradise of the hereafter. Standing up for “God and country” sounds very noble but like it or not it is the same credo held by a suicide bomber.

In essence this is how religious faith can be wrought into the inspiration to fly planes into buildings or for that matter throw bombs into abortion clinics.

Many Christians, some of whom are the most vocal critics of Islam, are guilty of falling into the same pitfalls of unwavering faith and also often hold the same values as their more extreme constituents.

I have had any number of conversations with various Fundamentalist Christians about abortion. When I say Fundamentalist Christians I am referring to certain Fundamentalists whose early movement grew out of resistance to theological modernism which among other things tried to accommodate the theory of biological evolution. Certain Evangelicals who adhere to the historical accuracy of the Bible and the "born again" experience in receiving salvation are also inclusive.

When I have brought up an abortion clinic bombing or shooting with various fundamentalists their response is almost always a pat statement that these actions are wrong and not Christian. However, upon questioning these activities further things get a bit more interesting. 

Do you believe abortion clinic bombings are permissible for the purpose of discouraging women from having an abortion? Do you believe defending the rights of the unborn in the name of Jesus is a noble religious endeavor? 

In these cases the rhetoric of a Fundamentalist against an abortion clinic bomber will almost always soften. Few Christians across the board refer to abortion clinic bombers as terrorists. To be clear the vast majority of pro-life activists are non-violent and do not condone violence. However, the protests directly in front of women’s clinics are clearly designed to intimidate and shame women. Additionally, there is always the subliminal threat that some religious nut case is going to do something. Women’s healthcare workers are often afraid to work at these clinics and Christian pro-life demonstrators know it.

In a recent conversation I had with a Christian Fundamentalist I asked him why the phrase “the sanctity of life” was never used in connection to the homeless or those needing healthcare. His answer was, “Those people had their chance.” I’m not sure exactly what people of whom he was referring. The poor who have never been blessed with God's grace maybe?

The Westboro Baptist Church is infamous for protesting the funerals of soldiers claiming that their deaths are the result of God’s retribution for America’s permissive attitude toward homosexuality. Most Christians would not agree with their vulgar methods. This “church” is very small but the flip side of this is that substantial percentages of the public, Christian and otherwise, are in total agreement with the Westboro Baptist Church that homosexuality is an abomination and an affront to God.

The belief held by many Christians that the United States is a divinely favored nation played a key role in the implementation of Manifest Destiny. Most of the Christian fundamentalists who I have debated on this topic are still reluctant to express any empathy for the plight of the American Indian.

For the record, as a non-believer I do not feel that most religious people are a problem or are in any way infringing upon my rights. I have known many Christians and Muslims whose spirit of humanity gushes forth upon their first handshake. I happen to believe these wonderful and generous people would be just as good of people without their faith but to each his own. Concurrently, I do not believe that religious faith is a prerequisite for meaning and purpose in one’s life. The process by which some people find inner peace through religious faith is no different than those who find it through meditation or taking a hike in the woods and becoming one with nature. Inner peace dwells within us and we find it by having faith in ourselves.

Religious extremism and the violence that often goes with it speaks to the dangers of unchallenged beliefs and ideals rooted in faith. It is tragically ironic that three of the world’s major religions, Judaism, Islam, and Christianity; all share the same ancient texts and holy lands yet always seem to be at odds with each other. The authors of these holy writs had just a modicum of accurate knowledge about the world. Yet, what they wrote long ago is so important that we have hated and killed each other over it for millennia.

I’m not sure if that is an indictment of religion or a testament of mankind’s stupidity and insanity.

Maybe it would be worthwhile for everyone to set the comfort of religious faith aside, just once in a while, and relish the life we have in this world. Every breath, every heartbeat, and every smile is precious. We all can agree life in this world is extremely short. Maybe we should all work together to extend it as long as possible and not worry so much about the hereafter. That is the anti-extremism message I would like to hear from our politicians to other leaders of the world.

What are the odds of that? Maybe religious faith is the extreme concept that everyone is really afraid of.

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