According to Father Thomas Michel and Prof. Sohaira Siddiqui, professors at Georgetown Qatar and panelists at the discussion on religion and extremism, no, religion is not to blame. Though it may be a vehicle for mobilization and justification, unifying a group with the idea of “God is on our side”, it is not the root cause of extremism.
For example, in a secular society, as many participants suggested as a solution due to the significance of religious hate in many wars, there would still be many other factors contributing to violence and extremist practices. In religious societies, however, people have a unifying entity to rally around, manipulating excerpts of religious books by taking them out of context in order to put forward an agenda for extremism. Both panelists agreed that, though many religious texts have a sentiment of hate for ‘the other’ and a component of moral supremacy, the overarching message of all major religions is peace and acceptance. To take any verse or phrase as separate from the text as a whole, is to not fully understand the message of God. Furthermore, enforcing secularism, as Professor Siddiqui pointed out, will create many more problems than it will solve as it is important to recognize that the majority of religious individuals do not condone violence and will not accept their religion being forcefully removed in the name of peace.
So if religion isn’t the cause of religious extremism, what is? The panelists came to the conclusion that there are many causes, the most potent of which involve social and economic dissent. Father Tom provided Philippines, where he used to live, as an example. Initially many different religions- Muslims, Christians, Hindus, Buddhists, etc.- lived together harmoniously as neighbors. However, when economic disaster and a change in leadership struck, people began losing their jobs. They weren’t able to send their children to school and began to feel helpless. They were suspicious of the media and government and didn’t know who to trust, so they turned on their neighbours who belonged to different religions. They trusted the people they went to church or mosque with; the people they prayed with, and they began to find meaning and purpose in violence in the name of their religion and prosperity, trusting extremist groups to lead them to prosperity at a time when they were confused and had been failed by the institutions of government that they had previously put their trust in.
In 2000, on the verge of extreme conflagration, a turning point occurred. The religious leaders of the Philippines, following a massacre of 35 Muslims, decided that this could not continue. They appeared together- scholars from Hinduism, Islam, Christianity and Buddhism- on national television, discussing the issue and conveying the message of peace and the idea that violence is not a part of religion. Needless to say, the violence died down and the discussions between religious groups continue to this day.
However, even in cases of extreme conflict and dispirit there are many individuals who resist the need for violence and extremism. If we look at history, some of the greatest leaders, such as Mahtma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr., used peace in the face of violence. Therefore, Professor Siddiqui also highlighted the importance of psychology in understanding extremist tendencies. She used the narrative of an Iraqi friend of hers, who participated in Doctors without Borders in Iraq. His childhood home was bombed while his mother was inside, and, on her deathbed, she asked her son to “do something”, supposedly about the conflict at hand. He had two options, says Professor Siddiqui, he could have fought and entered the conflict as a soldier, receiving immediate results, or he could have continued as a doctor, patiently waiting for the war to end, helping people. He chose the route of a doctor. A supporting anecdote that Father Tom shared, framed a conversation he had with three Hindu and Christian Tamils in Sri Lanka. He asked them why they pursued violence as a means to an end and they replied, “We can’t wait for everything to resolve itself. We’re young and we want to see change now!” All three of them were killed, shortly after, in conflict. This shows two different approaches to passion for a cause, the immediate, riled up route in which violence is an option and can be justified in the moment and, the patient, contemplative route in which discussion and passive resistance is used in order to affect long term results.
Therefore, we must create long term solutions and target causes of extremism at their roots: we must create discussion spaces between religions that allow us to learn and accept ‘the other’; we must target the governments of problem countries and encourage them to do their citizens justice and not allow an environment in which there is necessity of extremism and violence; we must educate children and adults alike at home and in school about the futility of intolerance and danger of misinterpreting religious texts. Forums for discussion such as those demonstrated throughout the QLC are ideal for the creation of nuanced, educated and tolerant individuals.
Written by Anisha Pai