In the current geo-political climate, many express a fear of religious extremism. Especially in the light of ongoing Islamic terror attacks, many lump together all those who take their religious beliefs “to the extreme.” The assumption is that the more dedicated one becomes to his religion in general, the more likely he is to commit indiscriminate acts of violence in the name of that religion. Is this true?
The answer to the above question depends on several things. First, what does it mean to be extreme? Is it the devotions of the believer that are extreme or that to which the believer is devoted? Second, by what measuring rod should one determine his devotion to his religion? Religious propositions are the same as any other propositions; that is, they are either true or they are false. In many cases, religious extremism results from large segments of a religious community believing certain propositions to be true. For example, many Jews, Muslims, and Christians believe that God wants His followers to make converts. This proposition is either true or false.
This essay will address the above questions, starting with a discussion of the paradigm example of Islamic extremism. Then I will argue that one should not expect the same type of actions to result from Christian extremism as from Islamic extremism. Finally, this essay will determine whether or not one is justified in lumping Christian extremism in with Islamic extremism.
The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, known as ISIS, is currently attempting to create an Islamic state known as a caliphate in the Sunni territories in Iraq and Syria. So far, ISIS controls hundreds of square miles in Iraq and Syria. This group rules itself by the dictates of the Muslim scriptures known as the Qur’an. This is known as Sharia law. Sharia law shows no tolerance for the religious or ideological beliefs of others. There is not room for disagreement with laws that are founded on Qur’anic teachings. This is because to do so is to believed to defy the will of Allah. There is literally no separation between Mosque and State in Sharia law; they are one and the same. Thus, any challenge to Islamic teachings is both an affront to Allah and traitorous to the state. This leaves very little room for those who are not Muslims to exist.
ISIS suggests that the imperative to spread Islam motivates them to engage in jihad. As ISIS has expanded, they have practiced mass killings on several occasions, tortured people, and carried out crucifixions. Their violence has been highlighted by the recent public beheadings of several of their western captives. These acts are extreme indeed. One of the individuals who beheaded the victims in the videos speaks with a British accent, a fact that made many aware that Islamic extremism is not limited to the middle-eastern countries; it exists in the western nations as well.
It goes without saying that ISIS is not the first Islamic group to use violence. The Nation of Israel is under constant threat of attack by the Hamas terror organization. Many Islamic nations desire to see Israel destroyed. This is not because of economic disparity; it is because many believe it to be their religious duty to destroy Israel and to retake the Holy Land that they believe rightfully to be their own.
Americans have on several occasions felt the violence of extremist Muslim groups. On October 23, 1983, two truck bombs exploded, killing 273 United States Marines at their barracks in Beirut, Lebanon. This was merely one of three attacks that year. A year later a truck bomb exploded outside a United States embassy and killed twenty-four people. That same year Kuwait Airlines was hijacked, and two Americans lost their lives. Year after year, the violence has continued.
In 1993, the first attempt to bring down the World Trade Center was motivated by the militant Islamist Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman. Eight years later, with several terrorist attacks in between, Islamic hijackers successfully took down the Twin Towers. America has been engaged in a war against extreme Islamic terrorists ever since.
Americans have had differing responses to Islamic extremism. One response is to distrust Muslims altogether. The other response is to show tolerance and trust to a fault. On the one hand, many people perceive non-violent Muslims as a potential threat. On the other hand, there are those who perceive those who worry about Islamic extremism as “Islamophobes.”
Is all this evidence that the more committed one is to his religion, the more likely he is to commit violence? More specifically, is all this evidence that the more committed one is to Islam, the more likely he is to commit violence. And finally, does an extreme devotion to the tenets of Christianity lead to violence?
First, devotion to Islam does not necessarily entail violence in the form of Jihad. It is true that all Muslims who are fighting to establish a caliphate ground this desire on Islamic teachings. However, not all who follow Islamic teachings are fighting to establish a caliphate. This is because there is a division over the nature of the practice of Jihad.
Liberal to moderate Muslims believe that physical fighting is not mandated by Islam. This is based on interpretations of the writings that describe Muhammad’s sayings and acts known as the hadith. These are surpassed only by the Qur’an itself. With this, the liberal and moderate Muslims refer to combative jihad as the “lesser jihad.” Conversely, they believe that the greater jihad is against one’s desires rather than against the infidels. Thus, liberals and moderates teach that Islam is a religion of peace, and that violence has no place in it. According to this, jihad is only justified when it is a defensive war. With that in mind, those who are devoted to the liberal or moderate form of Islam are less likely than their conservative counterparts to participate in combative jihad.
Although they may recognize that there is a spiritual jihad against the desires, those typically considered to be extremists interpret the words attributed to Muhamad as a command for combative jihad against non-believers. These extremists take seriously the passages in the Qur’an such as 2:190-194, which states: “Fight in the cause of God those who fight you, but do not transgress limits; for God loveth not transgressors. And slay them wherever you catch them, and turn them out from where they have turned you out…. But if they fight you, slay them. Such is the reward of those who suppress the faith.”
Contained in these extremist Qur’anic interpretations is the notion that if one fights for the furtherance of Islam, then he will receive a higher reward in heaven. On the other hand, those who are able to fight and refuse to do so suffer divine punishment. For the Muslim who believes these propositions to be true, there lies a very strong motivation to engage in combative jihad. Those who sincerely believe these propositions to be true will act on them. The dedicated Muslim of this type will fight offensive wars that target non-Muslims or those he believes to have violated the teachings of Muhamad.
The above is very important to understand. This is because many claim that Islamic extremists are “crazy.” This is not true. The Islamic extremist is one who takes seriously enough a strict interpretation of the Qur’an so as to carry out its injunctions. The Islamic extremist’s interpretation may be incorrect, but he is not necessarily insane. Out of political correctness many would rather say that insane extremists have “hijacked the true Islam” rather than say that Islam is a false religion altogether. Perhaps the motive for doing so is to keep from insulting the liberal and moderate Muslims.
So what about Christian extremism? Is what is true about Islamic extremism true for Christian extremism? In some ways, yes, these forms of extremism are similar, but in other ways they are different. First, both religions have scriptures that their adherents interpret differently. Furthermore, there are also differing levels of devotion to the religious teachings each group believes to be true. One could say then that if extremism is merely a statement describing devotion to one’s beliefs, then the two religions are similar. Therefore, one could be extremely devoted to a liberal version of Christianity just as one could be extremely devoted to a liberal or even “extremist” version of Islam. Yet, describing the level of commitment to a particular belief is not what those who decry extremism have in mind.
The vast majority of those who denounce religious extremism do so because of some pre-supposed evil or a violent element that it brings with it. Is this true of Christian extremists? First, what is meant by “Christian extremist?” If one takes extremism in this case to mean merely a strong devotion to the Christian teachings, then one may have a hard time justifying his or her condemnation of the extremist. Just as not all Muslims who take their religion seriously do not commit violence, neither do all Christians who take their religion seriously commit violence. Unlike Islam, which contains a doctrine of holy war in its scriptures, the Christian scriptures do not teach combat as an ongoing religious practice against one’s enemies.
Actually, the Christian scriptures seem to imply that adherents must resist engaging in combat. This is true even if Christians themselves have justified the waging of war. This principle is especially applicable when it comes to making converts. Just war theory in the Christian tradition, in fact, demands that governments justify the waging of war in light of Jesus’s pacifistic teachings. With that said, the more devoted to Jesus’s teachings about violence one is, the less likely he will be to wage an unjustified war. In fact, Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount focused much on how one should treat his enemies. It is very difficult indeed to interpret Jesus’s language as a call to arms. For example, Jesus taught “Blessed are the gentle, for they shall inherit the earth”; “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy”; “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God; “Blessed are those who have been persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” Keep in mind that Jesus spoke these words to Jewish adherents who were looking forward to the coming of a great messianic king that would militarily lead them out from under the yoke of Roman oppression. Jesus also warned his disciple Peter, when he cut off the ear of the Jewish soldier who came to arrest Jesus, that “all who draw the sword will die by the sword.”
Undeniably, Christians have committed violence. There have even been groups that have used the Christian scriptures to justify violence. However, these are not major sects of Christianity. Instead, the tendencies of these groups have centered on idiosyncratic interpretations of the Christian scriptures that are not shared by the rest of orthodox Christendom. The idiosyncratic nature of such beliefs is especially evident when the violent act is performed by an individual. However, this type of religiously-fueled violence also manifests itself with some groups. For example, the Branch Davidians’ interpretation of the Christian scriptures originated from a man named Victor Houteff. Houteff’s own denomination, the Seventh-Day Adventists, rejected his use of the scriptures and denounced his fellowship with them. In 1993, the new leader of the cult, David Koresh, and his followers stockpiled weapons. The result was a standoff with the United States government that led to the death of seventy-six Branch Davidians. Though there were survivors of the siege, Koresh’s violent interpretations of the scriptures died along with him.
The major tenets of orthodox Islam and Christianity are consistent among those who interpret the respective writings of each religion. For instance, the Christian teaching of mercy is consistent over time and location, and it does not depend on who interprets the scriptures. In the same vein, the concept of jihad is consistently exegeted from the Qur’an. Whether the command for Jihad is waged against the desires or against non-believers, it is present in the Muslim scriptures.
In reality, those who are devoted to the cause of Christianity tend to give money to charities, feed the poor, house the homeless, build hospitals, start schools, or go on mission trips to teach the Gospel. This type of extremism does not seem so bad. So what is it about certain Christian “extremists” that is so unsavory? The problem appears to be that some Christians make unpopular moral stands. For example, those labelled as Christian extremists tend to believe that homosexuality is immoral, and that abortion is the intentional, unjustified, killing of a human.
Pro-choice groups, same-sex marriage advocacy groups, and many anti-religious organizations view the above moral positions to be extreme, and many lump them together with Muslim jihadists as though these positions pose a threat to society. They imply that just as violent jihad is evil, so too are the beliefs that women should not have abortions or that one should not have homosexual relations.
There are at least three problems with the above juxtaposition of the extreme Christian ethic and Islamic jihad. First, pro-life groups are arguing to stop what is to be believed to be the unethical taking of innocent babies’ lives. This is in stark contrast to the Islamic command to “slay the infidel where you find him.” On occasion, it must be admitted, there are Christian individuals that take violent action against abortion clinic buildings and even abortion providers. However, the vast majority use peaceful, non-violent means to argue their case. Most of all, there is nowhere in the Christian scriptures that suggests that Christians are obligated to engage in violent acts against those who disagree with them or act immorally.
The second problem with this juxtaposition is that these moral claims are not exclusive to Christianity or even to religion. Whereas the concept of jihad is almost exclusively contained in the Muslim scriptures, arguments against abortion and homosexuality are found in most cultures. In fact, there are atheist groups that condemn abortion. More than that, there are homosexuals who believe that homosexuality is unnatural, and that it is the result of a mental disorder. Thus, it is a non-sequitur to suggest that these moral positions are exclusively the result of religious extremism.
Even if these beliefs labelled as “extreme” are the result of one’s religion, they cannot be disregarded merely on that basis. Each belief should be weighed in light of the evidence to determine if it is true or false. The question of whether or not one should wage jihad is not a question of whether or not it is extreme. It is a question of whether or not God actually wants His followers to do such a thing. In the same way, one cannot dismiss the Christian “extremist’s” belief that God does not want women to have abortions or that people should not practice homosexuality. To properly dismiss these claims, one must first prove that they are in fact false or evil. Simply saying that they are associated with “extremists” will not do.
In the end, the word “extremism” often clouds the real issue. Extremism, as Barry Goldwater proclaimed, can often be a good thing. Mother Theresa by all measures was extremely devoted to Christ. As a result, she served the sick, poor, and needy, adopting an extreme way of life. The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was extremely devoted to his cause. He rested his movement on the teachings of Christ and the promises made in the Declaration of Independence. Dr. King practiced non-violence in his appeal for civil rights and was deemed too extreme even by more moderate African-American pastors.
On the other hand, extremism is not limited to the religious. Adolph Hitler rooted his obsession with creating a master race in Darwinism. It is still debated as to how many millions of Jews, gypsies, homosexuals, and handicapped people he killed. Stalin is linked to the deaths of thirty-nine to forty-nine million people. The communist purges specifically targeted religious leaders and citizens. Mao Zedong’s Great Leap Forward killed forty-five million people in four years. Adherence to the worldviews of Nazi socialism and Soviet-style communism resulted in more deaths than all religious wars combined.
Being extremely devoted to a religion does not necessarily make one a danger to society. In the same way, just because one does not believe in God, it does not follow that his beliefs will benefit humanity. In the end, the problem does not lie with how devoted one is to his beliefs. The problem lies in the evil beliefs to which one is devoted.
No matter what our religious belief, it is our duty as creatures of God to be extremely devoted to one pursuit: the finding of the true, the good, and the beautiful in this world.
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