Development, Governance, Islam, Religion, Religious Extremism, Religious Fundamentalism, Terrorism, Violence

The Roots of Religious Extremism: My reaction to the 2013 murder of Lee Rigby

I published this note to Facebook on 23 May 2013, in response to the murder of soldier Lee Rigby in Woolwich the previous day.  I return to it now as I grapple with events surrounding the abduction of two hundred girls in Nigeria by the Boko Haram militant group.

Yesterday’s events in Woolwich were horrifying and appalling.  Human life and dignity destroyed in the most barbaric of ways.  I am perplexed by numerous reactions, because they seem to be rooted in assumptions that fundamentalist/extremist religious terrorism is some kind of discrete, independent phenomenon, separated in time and space from any sort of causal chain.  The first questions in my mind are always questions of why: what is it that drives someone so far from rational thought and conscience that they can unleash this heinous violence on a fellow human?  Now I am certainly no expert in these matters, but literature from political science, international relations and sociology underscores the prominence of fundamentalist religious movements as a reactionary occurrence.  The movements are able to gain adherents and power as a result of crises in their countries of origin.  These crises tend to be one of two things in the Muslim world (likely not to be confined to the Muslim world, but taking this as a case study in relation to yesterday): weak governance, creating a power vacuum and opening space for religious movements to accrue influence, such as by delivering essential services that a government is unwilling or unable to provide (health, education, etc); or despotic regimes, which can cause religion to be a ‘sanctuary’ for those under oppressive rule, or which have been seen to engender a process of ‘religious outbidding’, which means that political elites instrumentalise religion (more specifically, religious discourse) in an attempt to augment or consolidate their legitimacy.  They are able to do this partly because of the structure of Islam and its lack of centralised authority (again, it is not the only religion with a decentralised structure), making it susceptible to manipulation.

The reasons for the governance crises themselves are complex interactions of events and circumstances, going back hundreds of years.  By way of a crudely simplified, extremely brief and in places, rather vague (forgive me but I am not fully acquainted with certain details and cannot recall some of the finer points of what I have read) summary,  the Crusades are material to this, when countries of Western Europe engaged in ‘holy wars’ of their own, against followers of Islam, focused on the city of Jerusalem (holy wars are not exclusive to Islam; also, incidentally, the concept of jihad means ‘struggle’ rather than war, and has four interpretations, three of which are non-violent).  Christian states felt that it was appropriate to invade foreign lands and use violence against their Muslim inhabitants because Jerusalem was a holy site for them.  We did not stop at Islam, either, but fought to gain Christian influence in North Africa and Eastern Europe as well.  The Crusades increased our wealth and power, but have left a lasting legacy on how the West is perceived by those lands that were invaded.  Additionally, Western Europe was embroiled in conflict for many years during the seventeenth century, and it was ended with the signing of the Peace of Westphalia, treaties which entrenched the separation of religion and state in our countries.  Events have never unfolded in the same way elsewhere, meaning that Europe, or the ‘West’, has followed a different developmental trajectory, proceeding on the basis of secularism.  The lack of separation of church and state is, according to my understanding, an intrinsic feature of Islam (again not necessarily confined to Islam, but using this specific case study), which is why it can be instrumentalised by unscrupulous leaders.

The development trajectory of the Arab Muslim world has been hampered by colonisation, and also exploitation, by the West, of oil resources, which are the most accessible in the world in Saudi Arabia, and have provided that country (and others with oil resources, like Iraq and Iran, but Saudi Arabia is most notable) with enormous financial income, which has given it considerable influence over other Muslim nations.  When a country is rich in natural resources, its leadership tends to be less accountable to the public because it does not have to rely on revenue from taxation, and thus does not have to bargain with its population with regard to those taxes.  The West continues to exploit the resources to the present day, and by doing so, is jeopardising progress in accountable governance, as well as providing income with which these countries are able to purchase weapons and train soldiers.  As I have stated above, governance issues can promote the rise of religious movements.  Furthermore, the creation of the State of Israel in 1948, in close proximity to key sites of religious significance for Muslims, bears similarities to the Crusades, and Israel’s victory in the 1967 war created something of an existential crisis in the Arab Muslim world and led to a great deal of ‘soul-searching’ to try to determine how they might find a way of existing in the modern world.  Egypt, Syria, Sudan and Iraq, all subject to colonial rule by the West, attempted to operationalise secular ideology after independence, but it could not work because of weak governance.  Secular Arab nationalism was seen to have failed, and this precipitated recourse to religion, which I believe was set in motion by the Iranian Revolution of 1979.

Add to this the events of the Cold War, when The Soviet Union and the US and its allies were pitted against each other in seeking to gain or maintain ideological influence over other nations of the world.  The Soviets invaded Afghanistan, to take one example, and at this time, the US backed Osama Bin Laden and the Taliban, because they were seen as a force of resistance against the spread of Communism.  This is the very thing that led to the Taliban takeover – the force that we are now engaged in fighting against, in a highly intrusive nation-building project.  For the same reasons, huge aid (and also arms) flows from both the Soviet Union and the US and its allies went to all sorts of regimes, including authoritarian and oppressive governments in Africa (the Cold War is partly the reason why apartheid persisted for so long in South Africa), in efforts to win or maintain their allegiance.  Once the Soviet Union collapsed and the threat of Communism disappeared, the US and its allies cut these aid flows, leaving numerous countries with proliferations of small arms and a sudden collapse in state institutions that had relied on the aid.  These events have, together, created strong feelings of victimisation and anger, leading to the growth of anti-Western sentiment, which has seemingly reached its zenith in recent years because the Western powers have intervened with military force in Iraq and Afghanistan, having contributed to the issues that necessitated the interventions in the first place.

I do not write this to be conceited or provocative.  I felt compelled to offer up this information, which of course is based on my own understanding, is highly imperfect, contains gaps and no doubt inaccuracies, and is capable of being interpreted differently.  What I am essentially saying is that when these awful tragedies occur, it is vital to situate them within the huge and complex political, historical, geographical and cultural contexts that have shaped them, and for which we, as the people of today’s ‘West’, cannot eschew responsibility.  We have had involvement in causal events.  Terrorism is no accident.  I have shared this in the hope that it might shed some light on why awful things like this rear their ugly heads in our messed up world, and that it might underline the urgent necessity for us all to pursue the path of peace.  We are all in a position to educate ourselves and to acknowledge the wrongs of the past.  The only way forward as I see it, is to use these historical lessons as a point of departure, from which we are able to strengthen accountable governance in countries where crises open paths to extremism, so that we do not just treat the symptoms, but address the root causes for taking ‘refuge’ in, or resorting to movements that inculcate terrorist mindsets.