How religion can help stop terrorism

In Northern Ireland, many were put off supporting the IRA because of their faith

February 25, 2016
A woman and a child walk past an IRA mural in West Belfast © PETER MORRISON / AP/Press Association Images
A woman and a child walk past an IRA mural in West Belfast © PETER MORRISON / AP/Press Association Images

One of the many unintended effects of the 9/11 attacks was to jolt some commentators and observers into thinking again about religion. Many in the late 20th-century West had assumed (wrongly) that religious belief would gradually dissipate as modernity bled into post-modernity and as a secular teleology moved forward through time.

Unfortunately, when the pendulum swung and people began again to talk about religion, many scholars and commentators again got things profoundly wrong. Just as the notion that the world was shedding its belief in the numinous could not withstand the evidence of so much religious faith around so much of the world, so now the idea that religion carried with it necessarily extremist and pernicious dimensions took hold, and again missed the mark. Religion—we have been told—generates passion of a kind otherwise impossible to produce, and leads people to carry out viciously violent actions which would not otherwise have been practised.

There is much that is wrong in such a diagnosis. First, much of the debate says “religion” but really means “Islam.” Second, the notion of religiously generated violence is usually reserved for non-state actors alone, or at least for actors who are hostile to the West.

But, third, there is also the problem that religious belief need not be (and in the vast majority of cases is not), a matter of particularly extreme engagement; and it is certainly not normally an element of people’s views which leads to violence. In terms even of terrorism, the historical record suggests that the effect of religious belief and faith has in far more cases been a restraint against violent action rather than a motivator behind it.

The British Academy debate on faith on 3rd March could hardly be in a better location to consider such issues, since Belfast has long experienced political violence in various moments of conflict involving religious dimensions. No serious student of Irish politics thinks that, say, the late-twentieth-century Northern Ireland Troubles were religious in the sense of focusing on primarily theological issues. But nor can any serious observer think it a coincidence that almost all Northern Ireland Protestants are politically unionist, while the overwhelming majority of Irish nationalists in the North are from a Catholic background.

Yet here again the issue is not one of religious faith generating extremist politics. The roots for politically motivated violence on all sides ultimately derived here from rival nationalisms which possessed deeply religious histories; but the issues over which conflict emerged were ones of an interwoven set of issues—rival nationalisms, state power, economic structures and opportunities—and while religion coloured and informed affiliation in lasting ways, there was nothing necessarily Catholic or Protestant about the beliefs of those who engaged in violence.

Moreover, the fact that the Troubles did not descend into even further bloodshed often owed much to formal and informal religious restraint, belief, and commitment. I recall one former IRA member telling me that one of the things they frequently found when trying to persuade working-class Catholics to vote for Sinn Fein while the IRA campaign was under way, was a reluctance to support a political party expressly because what my interviewee called a “Catholic working-class morality.” Many working-class Catholics sympathised with the ultimate goals of Sinn Fein, but would only vote for them once the IRA’s violence had stopped, because Catholic faith led them to hold that such killing was wrong.

Much contemporary debate about jihadism is marred by an exaggeration of the role of any ideology in producing terrorist violence, and by an exaggeration too of the identification between religion and extremism. Literacy in religious faith would enrich public debate on such matters, and would certainly make the discussions in parliaments and newspapers more fruitful than they currently tend to be.

Richard English will be speaking at the British Academy debate, "Is True Religion Always Extremist" in Belfast on March 3rd. Click here for details