In April 2013, nightmarish scenes were recorded as two pressure cooker bombs, which killed 3 people and injured around 260 others, disrupted the Boston Marathon. The culprits were said to be motivated by ‘extremist’ Islamist beliefs. In May, British Army drummer Lee Rigby was run down by two men in Woolwich, UK, before being stabbed and hacked to death. Chilling scenes of the aftermath were captured on a mobile phone by a passer-by. The assailants were motivated by ‘extremist’ Islamist beliefs.
These are still relatively isolated cases in the West, but there is no doubt that terrorism is spreading globally. Russia, Pakistan, Somalia, India, Philippines, Indonesia, Israel, Nigeria, Syria, Tunisia, Yemen, Iraq, Kenya, Mali, Afghanistan and China all saw multiple religiously motivated suicide bombings, attacks or other mass murders in 2013. The majority of these nations saw dozens of actions. The most common assailants tended to be Islamist groups, and unsurprisingly the media-led debate largely focused on ‘extremist’ Islam: ‘how can we stop young Muslims being indoctrinated into extremist belief?’
Yet a more historically accurate opinion would show that the problem isn’t with Islam alone, and it isn’t just ‘extremists’ either. All religions – built as they are on the suppression of critical thinking and the valuing of belief without evidence – inherently teach followers not to be swayed by rational debate, and to hold certain beliefs regardless of what other opinion or facts are shown to them. For many Western religious people, these ‘steadfast and untestable’ beliefs go no further than a belief in a creator, however it is no shock that other religious people (especially outside the West) stick staunchly by more than just one basic belief from the holy books. Worryingly these other beliefs often consist not just of an afterlife or some other spiritual happening, but of the murder of non-believers, or prejudicial violence toward other groups. A further question thus follows: ‘how do we get religious people to keep their harmless religious beliefs but drop the harmful ones?’
The problem with this question is that it presupposes that you could teach every person to devalue rationality in some religious beliefs (thus allowing for belief in the untestable or unrealistic), but value it in others (thus rejecting beliefs in prejudicial violence). This is certainly possible as a theory, in which we fundamentally indoctrinate all religious people into strict sets of beliefs, but impossible in a reality where we don’t have the ability to force entire sets of sincere personal beliefs into other minds. It’s also highly immoral: indoctrination is the problem in the first place, so simply forcing a different indoctrination is only shifting the unshakeable belief to a different type.
A better solution, I would argue, is increasing secularisation globally. Secularism and rational thinking has thankfully moderated our ‘national religion’, Christianity, in the West. We still experience the odd Christian terrorist act, and groups like the Westboro Baptist Church are Christian extremists in regions like the United States that have not accepted secularism completely. But luckily Christian terrorism largely disappeared before the invention of significantly damaging technology, thanks to secularism. That’s also the answer to the question, if all religions are as violent as Islam, why does Islam underlie more violent terrorism? Islam is more violent because Islamic stronghold nations have fought off secularism and thus the need to moderate to survive.
If the long list of terrorist-laden countries was not evidence enough, there is yet more evidence from 2013 which supports the call for secularisation. I refer to the interesting case of the Taliban’s letter to Malala Yousafzai. In the West we believe the Taliban to be the most dangerous religious extremists, and we cover their actions in the media accordingly. Malala, the girl whom they shot in 2012 aged 15, miraculously recovered in a British hospital after surgery in Pakistan, and now attends school in the UK. Last year she went on to make an inspirational speech at the UN in support of free education for all children, unintentionally increasing her reputation in the process.
In what appeared to be a bizarre attempt at PR, senior member of the Taliban, Adnan Rasheed, wrote a letter to her which showed signs of regret at her shooting. Having portrayed the Taliban as evil foreigners, uninterested in discussion or reason, the media was forced to show a side of the Taliban which compared them with other religious sects, like home-grown religions in the West. Observing them trying to foster support for their faith through the media was to see that at their core they are really no different to any other religious group. Increasing secularisation in the West has meant that Christianity and Western Islamic groups almost always have to act through the media – through pen and not sword – else face backlash and dwindling participation. Islamic ‘extremists’ have not had the same pressure from secularisation to moderate, and thus continue to learn violence as a method of pushing similar interests.
There is little conclusion to draw from looking at 2013’s extremism than to call for further secularisation. I say this not as an atheist who believes secularisation to be an important step in progressing society, though I do believe this is true. I say it as a concerned human being who wishes to see an end to religious terrorism. We need secularisation to fight religious extremism into moderation.
Robert Johnson is a practical ethicist and philosopher of science. He specialises in the intersection of rationality and ethics, and is the author of 'Rational Morality: A Science of Right and Wrong'. http://www.robertjohnson.org.uk/
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