Extremism in Religion
Inside the Minds of the Extremists
‘Islam teaches that all life is sacred and that one should not disturb the peace of others’
As an institutional body religions can raise great amounts of charitable donations, predominantly for faith based causes, bring communities together and provide platforms for social change. Yet with all of its potential for good religion sadly also has the potential to provide a context for extremist groups. Extreme beliefs exist in various forms including politics, nationhood and religion among others. Extremism in religion exists across the religious spectrum, from those who attack abortion clinics in the name of Christianity, to those blowing up innocent people in the name of Islam.
So why do some religious followers turn to extremism? Especially as it seems so at odds with the central principles of many faiths. Christianity teaches its followers not to judge, allow God to pass judgment and love thy neighbour. So why do some Christians oppose homosexuality so much that they are willing to commit Christianity’s greatest sin of murder?
Islam teaches that all life is sacred and that one should not disturb the peace of others. So how can extremists who kill innocent people in mass attacks claim any legitimacy in the name of the Qu’ran?
Core theories as to why someone would join an extreme religious group highlight psychological and social factors. The same reasons why someone may join an extremist political party or hate group.
Any group identification can become reaffirming and provide comfort for an individuals looking for belonging. This sadly makes religion a target for those with extreme views, and a possible recruiting ground. A clear example of this was the English Defence League’s (EDL) attempt to recruit Sikhs by joining in a demonstration about the lack of police action taken over the rape of a young Sikh girl by a Muslim man. The religious leaders quickly tried to remove the EDL from the protest and dissociate themselves with the right wing group.
Another example in the UK of extremists targeting religious groups was in the early 2000’s; the BNP managed to recruit members of the Sikh and Hindu communities in an anti-islamic campaign. BNP propaganda was sent to religious leaders in which Nick Griffin labeled Islam ‘The biggest threat Britain has ever faced’. Once again, leaders of both faiths were quick to condemn the campaign and distanced themselves from the BNP and its extreme views.
There are however some key differences when it comes to Religious extremism as oppose to political extremism.
One thing unique to the mind-set of religious extremism is the fear of mortality. Religious followers believe in some form of afterlife or rebirth but to the extremist their fear of the afterlife dominates their thought process as they fear the eternal consequences of their actions, thus any act on earth can be justified if it means eternal bliss.
‘Extremism begets extremism…the irony is that the psychology of both groups are strikingly similar.’
Social and historical influences play a key role in the development of extremism. In these times of globalisation and exposure to other cultures’ values, the advancement of scientific knowledge and its implications can challenge some traditional beliefs and make people feel as though their culture is under attack. A need to return to and reassert long held beliefs may help someone hold on to their identity. Individuals can then become more and more defensive of their own cultural identity that they feel is under threat, resulting in extremist views. As the beliefs most challenged are also the most fiercely defended, this may explain why an extremist Christian can so vehemently defend the belief that homosexuality is wrong; although it’s just one line in the new testament it seems to be under threat. Society at large is not opposing the new testaments belief that it is wrong to judge others, and as it goes untested it needs not be defended, reasserted and is therefore left out of extremist ideology.
Like religious extremism, political extremism is also largely defensive and tries to hold onto beliefs that could be key to someones identity, which they feel are challenged by society at large. As these individuals identify in a group, the extreme beliefs are reaffirmed and become more and more important and entrenched. The social psychologist Milton Rokeach, wrote in 1960 that, “If doubt is cast on any portion of the belief system, doubt can be cast on any other portion, and this threatens the cohesiveness and solidarity of the group as well as the inner psychic stability of the individual believer.”
So it’s clear that the makeup of extremism is not simple. A combination of factors can result in someone holding extreme beliefs and identifying within an extreme group. Religions can sometimes be the issue which these groups form around, due to cultural and psychological factors, but they can easily form around other issues such as nationhood or political beliefs. Religion can also provide a great deal of good in supporting faith communities and through charitable work
It seems that extremism begets extremism the very hate crimes enacted by political extremists belittling others spiritual and cultural beliefs cause the conditions for religious extremism to flourish. The irony is that the psychology of both groups are strikingly similar.
By Ian Werret