The recently published Global Terrorism Index 2013 is being reported as confirming that “religion has become the main driver of terrorism”, surpassing nationalist and other motives. But there is a problem with the analysis. The report tracks the justifications claimed by terrorists for their actions, but this is very different from identifying ‘drivers’. Between the scholarly research and the viral infographic lies an important gap in our understanding.
The idea that religion ‘drives’ terrorism flatters an increasingly popular view that goes like this: religion is dangerous, because it has at its core the rejection of reason in favour of impulsive, self-interested ‘belief’. But there is a difference between a phenomenon’s cause and its after-the-fact justification by actors who want to excuse violent acts.
In fact, research suggests that it is religious moderates, not the outspoken critics of religion itself, who are the key to combating religious extremism. Only they have real credibility in condemning the abuse of religious symbols to justify criminal acts. Attacks on faith itself by outsiders tend, on the whole, to deliver new support to extremists – they merely escalate the sense of moral indignation that allows (some) bystanders to accept the justifications claimed by violent actors.
Also playing a role, here, are misunderstandings about the nature of religious faith. My own research , supported by Research Councils UK and the Leverhulme Trust, has shed light on the historical misunderstanding behind the idea that ‘belief’ itself is the problem.
Many people assume that belief in a supernatural being is what distinguishes those who belong to a religious community from those who belong to none. This is a misunderstanding. In the first place, not all religions involve ‘belief’. Most involve an idea of accountability, but this can be to a community or inner conscience rather than to a supernatural power.
In the three great Abrahamic traditions – Judaism, Christianity, and Islam – that accountability is to God. (To the same God, as it happens, known in Hebrew as Yahweh and in Arabic as Allah.) Each has at its root a promise recorded in the Book of Genesis, when out of all the gods of the ancient Near East, this one God chose Abraham and sealed with him a covenant, or treaty of mutual trust.
‘Faith’ in those days was a pledge of loyalty. The term – Greek: pistis, Latin: fides, Hebrew: emunah, Arabic: iman – was also used in banking and military contexts. Ancient writers of all three faiths argued that God’s identity remains a mystery which cannot be reached by reason – but this was not a way of dismissing reason. Rather, it was a way of clarifying the boundary between empirical knowledge and inner conscience.
The salient feature of ‘faith’ was – and remains – accountability. This was true in theology just as it was in banking. To have faith was not to believe in a god’s existence. It was to choose one God from among other gods, dismissing rival gods as idols.
This pledge of accountability is why moderates will sometimes defend extremists as misguided but well-intentioned, when asked to choose between a hostile critique of extremism and extremism itself.
Another problem is that tolerance is incorrectly perceived as a non- or anti-religious value. Among the most cherished principles inherited from the Enlightenment are those of tolerance and equal access to justice. But, surprisingly, our modern idea of secular tolerance derives directly from the efforts of an early medieval Christian bishop to defuse sectarian unrest in what is now Algeria.
It was the fifth-century bishop Augustine of Hippo (now Annaba in Algeria) who conceived of secular values as a pastoral tool to combat identity-based violence. Augustine’s City of God became – and remains – one of the founding texts of political science as a discipline. (In another post I will show how Enlightenment thinkers in France and elsewhere explicitly engaged with Augustine’s thought.)
The thinking can be summarized as follows. In this fallen world (the saeculum: hence: ‘secular’) no human being can perfectly know God’s will. It follows that no government can be perfectly guided by God’s will. Since human knowledge is provisional, human theocracy is always approximate.
A state, he argued, may encourage or even compel righteous behaviour by it subjects. But it is important that those who hold minority views ‘buy in’ to the social contract, so their right to justice must be correspondingly protected. Without perfect human knowledge of the divine will, the principle of mutual respect takes precedence over the desire to impose uniformity.
It is important to remember that secular values have their roots not in the Enlightenment, but in the monotheism of the last years of Roman Africa.
To begin with, there is the matter of cultural justice. Ignorant Western commentators cannot reasonably steal credit from a fifth-century Numidian (Augustine was born in Thagaste, modern Souk Arras in Algeria) and accord it instead to 18th Century Englishmen.
But there is an even more important reason. Christianity, Islam, and Judaism have lessons to offer where violence is concerned.
The most important is that acts of violence have a startling power to ‘stick’ in the imagination. Acts of courage and self-sacrifice are the most powerful of all. The unjust execution two thousand years ago of a single Jerusalem-based religious radical, Jesus of Nazareth, sparked a legacy that is multiplying its reach even today, in both Christianity and Islam. (Jesus is named as Messiah in the Qur’an.)
The idea of martyrdom celebrates the moral authenticity of an individual’s willingness to live – and die – for the greater good. It is an idea that has great appeal, especially to young people looking for moral authenticity.
But who chooses which ideas and values can borrow the electric charge of the martyr’s sacrifice? Here, too, religious moderates can play an invaluable role.
For the most part, religious populations – in the UK and elsewhere – are thoughtful people who are trying to honour values handed down through generations. In fact, it is precisely the peaceable instinct to keep faith with inherited values that makes traditional faith communities so valuable in the battle against extremism.
Suggesting that these people should reject inherited sacred traditions because others claim to have found inspiration to violence there doesn’t really make sense. Given the will, similar inspirations could be discovered in the Iliad – or Shakespeare.
This essay is reproduced, by permission and with minor editing, from the Manchester Policy Blog.