A Long View of History and Religious Extremism

Global Challenges Counter-extremism

A Long View of History and Religious Extremism

Posted on: 24th November 2014
Philip Jenkins
Baylor University, Professor of History

Western observers agonise over the violence and extremism that so often characterises the Islamic world today. Some try to explain the conflicts in terms of a troubled imperial past, while others, more sweepingly, blame rampant fanaticism on the faith of Islam, and even on the Qur'an itself. Both accounts, though, are short-sighted, lacking any serious historical perspective. Nor do they acknowledge the demographic factors that so powerfully shape religious change.

It is grimly amusing to hear Westerners lecture Muslims that what they need is a Reformation

Attempts to find the distinctive religious roots of Islamic violence read oddly when set alongside the experience of Christian Europe. Although scholars freely admit the existence of a Christian holy war tradition, it did not end with the Crusades. As late as the 1870s, European publics were so incensed about the Ottoman Empire's maltreatment of its Christian subjects that the continent stood on the verge of a cataclysmic war that would have prefigured 1914. The First World War itself inspired ferocious (Christian) religious rhetoric, as all sides demonised their (mainly Christian) enemies and preached holy war, claiming that heavenly visions proved the rightness of their cause. Regardless of nation or denomination, religious leaders and media outlets actually declared that death in this holy war would bring a soldier direct to Heaven, washing him of his sins. Martyrdom brought salvation. Religious extremism also fueled domestic politics.

In the decade before 1914, it was an open question which sectarian divide was most likely to ignite civil war, the struggle between Catholics and secularists in France, or that between Protestants and Catholics in Ireland. Although overt religious violence faded in most regions after 1920, Europe was for decades plagued by fanatical mass movements that drew heavily on secularised versions of familiar apocalyptic rhetoric and symbolism. Most also targeted the Jews as the ancient religious enemy. Nor was such rhetoric always covert or sublimated. Many fascist movements used versions of the cross in their heraldry, and Romania's genocidal Iron Guard was officially named the Legion of the Archangel Michael.

Surveying these very recent expressions of faith-based hatred and insanity in Europe, it is grimly amusing to hear Westerners lecture Muslims that what they need is a Reformation, so that they can evolve towards peace, tolerance and the acceptance of diversity. Of course, Christian extremists and war-mongers were a minority within the faith, who were outnumbered by principled and heroic believers; but that minority could still wreak appalling havoc.

Many fascist movements used versions of the cross in their heraldry

Many now unconsciously take western secular government and pluralist societies as an established reality. The very gradual exclusion of faith from European politics has, however, been a recent phenomenon, and secularisation a still later process. As recently as 1955, the flag that has since become the symbol of the European Union was explicitly based on traditional images of the Virgin Mary, with the central figure omitted to avoid offending Protestants and others.

Much of Europe today is profoundly secular, to the extent that some scientific surveys project the total evaporation of faith of all kinds from several nations by the end of the present century. Whether or not such predictions are valid, the reasons underlying that religious decline help account for the growing gulf between Christian and Islamic worlds.

We can imagine any number of such possible scenarios and configurations, schisms within Dar ul-Islam, as well as between the Islamic world and the West. What is not acceptable, though, is to explain these trends in terms of deep-rooted aspects of Islamic culture, still less of its fundamental scriptures. In so many ways, the contemporary Islamic world recalls European and Christian precedents. Any policy discussions must proceed accordingly.

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