Religious Extremism: opening up a conversation

I’ve spent just short of decade now engaging with extremism. During that time Religious Extremism has become a very important topic. Too often the definitions placed on it do not demonstrate an understanding of how faith works in people’s lives. I’m very concerned about extremism wherever its found, but I’ve come to the conclusion that as a Christian I’m best placed to put meaning on what Christian extremism looks like. Its sometimes uncomfortable holding a mirror up to yourself and the faith that means so much to you.

In challenging extremism I’ve valued the support of Hope not Hate. I recently wrote a piece for Hope not Hate’s State of Hate 2019 report, You can download the whole report here. Director of Hope not Hate Nick Lowles opened up the topic in the report with an essay “Understanding and Countering Extremism” (p101-11). He usefully gives six characteristics of extremism that it are vital we think about as we look at religious extremism. Alongside my own perspective piece is another by my Sikh friend Gurinder Singh Josan (p12) that highlights many similar themes. I hope my own piece read in the context of these can help us come to a better understanding of religious extremism.

On 10th March 2009 I met extremism face to face on the streets of Luton. As the group that became English Defence League confronted members of al-Muhajiroun the raw hatred was tangible.  Over the ten years since that time we’ve faced a lot of extremism in our town, but it has been hatred, the strongest symptom of that extremism, that has too often poisoned the atmosphere, its corrosive presence seeking to eat away at the heart of community relationships. 

Antifascist groups like Hope not Hate have long successfully sought to challenge political extremism, but the religiously motivated extremism that bust into popular consciousness in September 2001 has provided a different challenge.  Both far right and Islamist terrorism have played to the script of a clash of civilisations, portraying their cause as inevitable when western Christian / liberal civilisation meets Islam. They have too often plundered history for its stories and icons, restating their case and with it justifying the most awful crimes.

As a community mediator and peacebuilder based in Luton’s town centre parish church and working across the community I have worked closely with churches and mosques to challenge this narrative.  We have sought to bring the perspective and teachings of our faiths to challenging religiously motivated extremism, and the hatred it generates.

My Muslim friends quickly convinced me that the attempts of al-Muhajiroun and others to claim the moral high ground of Islam were not true to the Qu’ran or the mainstream scholarship of Islam. Their sincerity, commitment to challenge those in their midst who held to a different view, and most importantly their friendship, have made it easy to reject the idea that al-Muhajiroun, al Qaeda and ISIS represent Islam.

For our part it was relatively easy for us as Christians to dismiss the claims of EDL or the BNP to represent the Christian heritage of our nation.  However when Britain First’s “Christian Patrol” appeared on our streets with their large crosses and professed “righteous anger” at what they claimed was happening to Luton we had to fine tune our message. When they announced plans to march in Luton in June 2015 church leaders in the town wrote to them challenging their plans. Three of us met with them. We heard of faith journeys that sounded convincing, all too like some of our own, and statements of faith we could superficially share. Yet at the heart of their words in that meeting was a lot of fear and hatred, and what was lacking was love.  It made me hold a mirror up to the way I expressed my own faith.

Genuine faith, whether Christian or Muslim, or that inspired by other faiths, is not at its heart about an ideology that leads to extremism and generates fear and hatred, but the outworking of that faith in peoples lives as love and service.  An arson attack on a mosque in early May 2009 concentrated our minds as churches and mosques as to how we were going to face down the hatred and resist the attempts of the extremes to pull us apart. There has been a lot of work done in Luton, and as faith communities we have been a central part in all of it. However for me the key piece was a statement made at a press conference covered on national TV where we said we would not allow religious extremism to be at the heart of Luton’s story, but rather love and service.

“As Muslims and Christians in Luton we are committed to grow in understanding of each other and to work together for good.  In doing so we are inspired and challenged by words that lie at the heart of each of our Holy Scriptures, where we are commanded to love God and love our neighbour. As neighbours in this town, we need to discover the things that unite us, and celebrate those. Where we are different we are committed to seek understanding and trust, rather than resorting to hatred and strife.  Let us respect each other, be fair, just and kind to one another and live in sincere peace, harmony and mutual goodwill.   In this time of tension we are calling for people of all communities and every area of life in Luton to take every opportunity to strengthen our unity.”

Very practically I would hazard a working definition of religious extremism as “faith inspired ideology without love.” My thinking has been profoundly impacted by Dr Martin Luther King’s teaching. Yet I am reluctant to throw the word extremist around too freely. I would rather focus on the hatred and fear it generates. There has understandably been a lot of talk about extremism as our nation has sought to respond to the challenges of the past two decades. But just as the adage “One man’s terrorist is another’s freedom fighter” is true, so I’d suggest “one mans extremist is another’s truth `bearer.” 

Its certainly very easy to attach the label extremist to people of faith. It sometimes feels that anyone with a conservative approach to interpretation of faith is fair game.  Yet across Luton I can point you to deeply committed Muslims and Christians, conservative in their faith, who have been at the heart of the community’s commitment to living at peace. That is simply because they know the faith they take seriously calls them to love. And so they reject hatred with their whole being.

My tentative working definition of religious extremism is “Faith inspired ideology without love.” Does that work for you? I appreciate your (polite and serious) comment.