Why is religious extremism on the rise?

One man’s extremist is another’s true believer

March 01, 2016
The Islamic State (IS) bulldoze the Sunni Ahmed al-Rifai Islamic shrine in Mahlabiya district, Iraq. Extremists have destroyed at least 10 ancient shrines and Shiite mosques in the same territory ©PA
The Islamic State (IS) bulldoze the Sunni Ahmed al-Rifai Islamic shrine in Mahlabiya district, Iraq. Extremists have destroyed at least 10 ancient shrines and Shiite mosques in the same territory ©PA
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 holding a belief to the core of one’s being. Enlightened secularists may sneer at Dan Walker, or revelations that a politician prays before making decisions, but for a sincere believer, religion affects everything one does.

If we are to rightly avoid the trap of thinking that all religions are more or less the same, “true religion” must have a different definition for any given faith. Perhaps the only part of that definition that would apply to a number of religions is that it must represent the orthodox mainstream.

There is nothing inherently violent or extreme about belief in a deity. It certainly lends no more propensity towards extremism than support for any other ideology. The plethora of extremist groups without a religious basis proves the point: the Animal Liberation Front; Combat 18; or the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). What extremist ideologies, religious and not, all share is absolute certainty of the righteousness of the cause, frequently accompanied by an impulse to force that cause on others.

But there is something that is unique to religious extremism. Blind certainty, or blinkered adherence to an ideological position, is an unfortunate human trait. When it is accompanied by divine sanction, its nature changes, however. It is entirely internally rational; certitude is accompanied by everlasting reward. Suffering begets treasures in heaven. Martyrdom ceases to be entirely about self-sacrifice.

Of course, this is true for many sincere believers, which brings us back to the dilemma of what constitutes an extremist. Perhaps it is the desire to impose one’s beliefs on others, not through argument or evangelism, but through coercion. When this has religious motives it is, after all, for the eternal good of its victims.

But is this “true religion”? Not really, by most definitions. An example comes from jihadi ideology. I’ve analysed two years of propaganda from IS, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, and Jabhat al-Nusra. While they depend on mainstream Islamic concepts for their identity, their interpretation of those concepts is anything but orthodox. The Arabic term iman (broadly meaning “faith”) was interpreted to focus entirely on violent jihad: only those who joined IS could be said to have faith. Ihsan (roughly translating as “good works”) was likewise emphasised—but the ultimate good work was defined as violent jihad. These are not positions that would be shared by the orthodox Muslim mainstream.

The challenge for the mainstream majority in any religion is that their quiet devotion is less obvious than that of those eager to die or be imprisoned for their cause. But we do that majority a disservice when we suggest that extremists are in some way more representative of the essence of their religion. Perhaps more importantly, we bolster the conviction of those who shout louder that they are the “true believers,” and that all who disagree are infidels or apostates. After all, even their enemies say so.

The British Academy debate, “Is True Religion Always Extremist,” is being held in Belfast on March 3rd. Click here for detailsNow read: How religion can help stop terrorism