One man’s extremist is another’s true believerby Peter Welby / March 1, 2016 / Leave a comment
Read more: To lead a better life we’re better of without religion
Religious extremism is on the rise. In January, at least 16 religious groups carried out killings or kidnappings in 21 countries around the world. 15 years ago, an American university identified 11 groups in seven countries.
The question is why—is religion inherently extremist? Or do we just hear a lot more about the extremist variety?
In December, my organisation—the Centre on Religion and Geopolitics—published research on the ideologies of rebel groups in Syria. We found that at least 65,000 fighters in the country belong to groups that share parts of Islamic State’s and al-Qaeda’s ideology. But some of these groups were willing, at least in theory, to participate in peace talks. Some say this is enough to define them as part of the “moderate opposition.”
The disagreement has a simple cause: no one can agree on how to define extremism. Just look at the statement by a senior police officer last May that signs of Muslim radicalisation might include no longer shopping at Marks and Spencer, or the pupil recently referred to police over a “Free Palestine” badge.
Is it violence that defines an extremist, or the desire for separation and exclusivity? Surely violence is too narrow a definition. But does exclusivity cast the net too wide: do we include the Amish, or ultra-Orthodox Jews? If that is our definition, we might even include those who disapprove of their children marrying someone of an opposing political party.
One man’s extremist is another man’s true believer. The confusion is deepened by a common oxymoron, where “conservative” is used as a synonym for “radical” when talking about religious figures. The hounding of the new BBC breakfast host Dan Walker over his capacity to report the news fairly while holding to a literal reading of Christian scripture highlights this tension.
But if we are talking about “true religion” (a contested term at the best of times), the fairest definition must be…