As I said in my speech at the UK's House of Lords on Tuesday, religious extremism is forbidden by the Quran.
"And as the frantic wielders of these weapons snatched them from the stream of sparks, and tore away into the street, the same red hue was in their frenzied eyes; - eyes which any unbrutalised beholder would have given twenty years of his life to petrify with a well directed gun."
A Tale of Two Cities is a wonderful piece of literature and Charles Dickens is among my favourite story-tellers. At its heart it is a story about brutality and vengeance. Whether in France, where the novel was set, or London during the 1850s - where history tells us that there were similar parallels - it is an example of extremism being as prevalent a concept in Charles Dickens' time as it is today.
Today, you don't need Dickens to read about extremism; you’ll find it all over the media. Whether it is neo-Nazism, nationalist and separatist movements, issue-based movements such as animal rights and anti-abortion, or militant 'Islamism', media pages are littered with stories about extremism. But it is the descriptive 'Islamic extremism' and its most recent offspring, 'Islamists' which really germinates the strongest opinions.
In truth, I struggle to find pieces of modern day writing which discuss extremism without using the word Islam; whether that is to associate Islam with extremism or to disassociate Islam from extremism, the fact is, as far as I can see, Islam always seems to be connected with extremism. That creates an increasingly inextricable and erroneous link. Copious caricatures of crazed, one eyed and hook wielding Islamic clerics proliferate that spectacle. In fact, extremism is now so closely connected with Islam that Lady Sayeeda Warsi, said not too long ago that Islamophobia had now passed the 'dinner table test' and become socially acceptable.
Meanwhile, the late Christopher Hitchens, a notable critic of Islam and other Abrahamic faiths, and others convey the idea that religion is the world's largest purveyor of violence. They say that wars the world over are rooted in religion and that religion is even a potential threat to human survival. Hitchens was ferociously intellectual. He was also plain wrong.
The claim that religion is the cause of war, discord and violence simply ignores the reality of history. I would say that such bombastic claims are carefully stitched together with the fragile thread of hyperbole; put simply, they too are extremist views and are way off the mark.
Empirical evidence tells us that the non-religious nation state is by far the world’s most prolific purveyor of violence. The 20th century alone witnessed an anti-clerical Mexico, Nazi death camps, Stalinist and Maoist purges, the Khmer rouge killing fields, and the Rwandan genocide - all of which were secular and state-sponsored affairs. If you go further back, you find many more, including the French Revolution. And it’s not just physical violence; there is social violence too. The inalienable human rights which we all now take for granted were denied by fiercely secular proponents like Karl Marx who described religion as the opium of the masses. And anti-religion plays its part too. In late 2012, Erika Menendez was charged with second degree murder as a hate crime for pushing Sunando Sen onto train tracks in New York – she did so because she hated Muslims.
What is clear is that these atrocities vastly outrank anything that can be laid at the feet of religion. The fact is that religion has contributed significantly to peace and justice movements across the world with countless individual and organisational acts of charity. The work of the Red Cross, the Red Crescent, and Humanity First are well known examples. Time recently reported on a survey carried out by the Chronicle of Philanthropy which said that in the USA, those who tend to give more to charity are those that live in more religious areas.
So despite the positive contributions of religion, what has happened to instigate such a tectonic shift in the overall narrative in relation to extremism which now lays the responsibility for it at the feet of religion?
It’s a serious question to which there are no easy answers. But although the reasons why extremism is now connected with religion are many-fold, three stand out to me as being prominent. First, politicised religious clerics have in some cases managed to amass large followings and poisonously influence their followers to commit atrocities by using religion as a tool of persuasion. They have done so purely for political convenience. Economics, education, defence and human rights are complicated to discuss from a policy perspective. It is so much easier for self-appointed clerics to maintain the support of a relatively uneducated electorate by promising them divine intervention and heaven instead. Second, inequalities between people and nations are being exacerbated with increasingly unjust outcomes being imposed upon weaker parties. Third, a more powerful, opinionated and instant media publicises those stories that facilitate its commercial aims.
And when the media do report on extremist atrocities, they do so inconsistently. Christian abortion clinic bombers and paramilitary groups, Jewish and Sikh assassins of political leaders, the Japanese Buddhist poison gas attack in Tokyo, and the relatively recent attacks on a Sikh temple in United States were all driven by pseudo-religious ideologies but they are not reported as Christian, Jewish or Sikh extremism in the same way that atrocities are reported when an extremist is allegedly connected with Islam. And as media organisations report on 'Islamists', I find myself struggling to find corresponding terms for other faiths like Christianist (or Catholicist if one were referring to the IRA), Hunduist or Judaist.
But let’s not hide from the obvious. The most difficult thing for a Muslim is to publicly accept that Islam's image is in bad shape. Well, let's do that; I admit it, Islam's image is in bad shape. I also accept that there are some that misrepresent Islamic teaching. Whether it is the horrific terrorist atrocity in Kenya, the tragic sectarian conflicts in Syria, the violent reactions of some Muslims to the ghastly cartoons and inexcusable videos about Islam's prophet Muhammad - Islam and an innate apprehension of everything Muslim seem to come hand in hand.
The sad fact is that unfortunately, some so-called Islamic groups, and certain others have depicted Islam as an uncivilised, extremist, belligerent and bellicose religion with Islam's very name leading to the false picturisation of swords and bombings. Some people are understandably fearful. Let’s be honest, fear is not the fault of the frightened.
I would argue that to blame Islam and the Prophet Muhammad for the misguided actions of the few extremists crackpots who are associated with Islam is the same as blaming George Washington (the architect of the second amendment and the right for Americans to bear arms) for some of America’s crazed gunmen – both, equally preposterous. We must judge Islam on its teachings and the practices of its founder.
So let’s set the record straight, extremism is not sanctioned by Islam. Many will already know that the word 'Islam' translated into English means peace. The Quran says that there should be 'no compulsion in religion'. (2:256) That means every person should be free to practise his or her religion or indeed to have no religion at all. It also says that if God had wanted to enforce a unified belief, he would have done so, rather Allah intended freedom of religion. (10:99) The Quran even mentions a duty on Muslims to protect churches, and synagogues and mosques (22:39-40).
These teachings have manifested themselves in the practise of the prophet Muhammad. He offered his own mosque to a delegation of Christians from the city of Najran who had come to visit, permitting them to worship in their own way and according to their methods. As the Covenant of Medina testifies, in an Islamic State under the Muhammad's leadership, non-Muslims were protected.
Against that backdrop, it is contemptible for a Muslim to engage in any form of terrorism. Nor can they seek the destruction of places where the worship of God exists no matter which faith they are assigned. Neither can they engage in extremism as it is understood today. The same extends to the despicable reactions after the cartoons and film attacks on Muhammad. Whilst Muslims were particularly offended by these acts, Islamic perspectives suggest that violence should not beget violence. The appropriate reaction for Muslims is to engage peacefully but decisively. By responding with violence, those who have engaged in it have done precisely what the attacks on the Muhammad were designed to do; cast Islam in a negative light.
A careful look at extremism reveals a plenitude of underlying causes which invariably find their roots in political and social grievances. His Holiness Mirza Masroor Ahmad, the worldwide spiritual leader of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community to which I belong, persuasively teaches the motto of 'Love for All, Hatred for None', which has become a striking, memorable and profoundly evocative representation of the peaceful teachings of Islam. How then does the Ahmadiyya Community promote interfaith harmony, and by that I mean among people of religion and no religion? It’s highly successful strategy has five key limbs:
1) All beliefs, thoughts and conscience whether Islamic or otherwise must conform to the underlying Islamic principle of not permitting the use of force and coercion in any manner as an instrument in resolving inter-sectarian and inter-religious strife. The choice of religion, the freedom to profess, propagate, practise and exercise, or to denounce or to cease to believe or change one’s belief must be protected absolutely.
2) Even if religions or beliefs cannot agree on what they define as being 'the truth', all religions and beliefs should conform to the Islamic principle of showing respect and reverence to the founders and holy personages of other faiths. In pursuing this, one does not have to compromise one’s principles. Rather, the right of every human being that his religious sensibilities and sentiments shall not be violated and offended must be recognised. Equally, the sanctity of religious dialogue must be maintained and exchanges of view about religion or irreligion must not be condemned as attempts to sabotage religious peace. It is the manner of dialogue, which, if wrong, should be condemned and not the dialogue itself.
3) The denigration of religious personalities should be treated with disdain and be regarded as socially unacceptable.
4) Inter-faith conferences should be widely encouraged and promoted. Those should include speakers from all faiths who should highlight the positives of their faith without maligning others.
5) Cooperation in all good plans and schemes for the mutual benefit of mankind must be promoted and encouraged. For instance, philanthropic projects should be undertaken jointly between Christians and Muslims and Hindus and Jews.
These represent tried and tested methodologies for enhancing religious peace. Equally, at a global level, states also maintain a most sacred trust. In addressing extremism nations must ensure that justice is done and it is seen to be done. Taking a consistent approach to foreign policy, considering just outcomes beyond national borders, being compassionate, punishing wrongdoing consistently, respecting and enforcing the inalienable human rights which every country in the world has subscribed to all form part of that journey.
But there is one other important thing. Despite the media frenzy we see around religion, the fact is that more people in the world believe in God than do not. And so as we in the west move towards the promotion of universal human rights and an almost universal equality and tolerance of secular views, as a truly liberal society we must also ensure that this does not lead to an opposite intolerance of religious views. Because society cannot flourish with one perspective alone.
Theodore Roosevelt once said: "Great thoughts speak only to the thoughtful mind, but great actions speak to all mankind." That is a challenge not just for the government and the media, but for every right thinking person who wishes for a freer, more tolerant and extremist-free future for us and our children. May God make it so. @KhalilYousuf
Khalil Yousuf spoke about religious extremism at the House of Lords on Tuesday.