Where is religion’s place in the extremism debate?

Positioning religious extremism as a variant of a larger species of modern ideological extremism offers a more balanced and non-partisan frame for constructive engagement.

By: /
February 10, 2016
Marching to remember the victims of Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin's regime in Belarus, Nov. 1, 2015. Stalinist Marxism can be seen as another form of ideological extremism. REUTERS/Vasily Fedosenko

By the turn of the 21st century we dwelt in a world marked by the resurgence of religion. Gone were the buoyant secularisms of the post-war era with their varied faces and ideologies (Kennedy, Khrushchev, Nasser, Nehru, Ben Gurion). Gone was the serene relegation of religion to the private sphere.  

The happy side of this resurgence is the evolving struggle to accommodate the deep diversities of religious belief and expression within increasingly multicultural societies. The dark side is marked by the rise of waves of ideological extremism anchored in religion. 

Accommodating religious diversity presents unique opportunities for public policy and education. Initiatives in Europe have made significant contributions to the promotion of religious literacy in educational institutions. In Canada, Quebec’s Ethics and Religious Culture program provides a similar approach to the educational engagement of religious diversity. In short, there seems to be broad support for well-designed programs of religious literacy attempting to present diversity in a respectful and relatively neutral way.

However, the problem of religious extremism remains a conundrum. How do we begin to address the dark side of this religious resurgence in educational discourse? This challenge seems to provoke far more polarized responses.

Some approaches simply wish to absolve religion. Violent extremism is presented as a reactive response to non-religious factors such as poverty, oppression or state breakdown. In some cases this approach takes a quasi-theological turn by contrasting the true peace-seeking spirit of religion to the perverse and criminal impulses of extremism. Policymakers and political leaders from Bush to Obama have adopted this view. Pedagogical versions of this approach advance an essentialist reading of the core nature of religious traditions. True religion is about peace, mutual understanding and tolerance. Suggestions that radicalization, violence and discrimination may be linked to religion are dismissed as feeding into the perverse rhetoric of extremism. 

Others argue that contemporary forms of violent extremism are intrinsically related to key aspects of religious traditions. The most inflated example of this position are the “new atheists” who condemn religion itself as the irrational source of conflict and violence. In this view, movements like ISIS merely exemplify the great damage done by the penetration of this doctrinal irrationalism into the public sphere. The core pedagogical message:  pure religion is prone to extremism and should be carefully sequestered to the private sphere.

"Some approaches wish to absolve religion, while others argue contemporary forms of violent extremism are intrinsically related to religious traditions."

A third approach emphasizes the “ambiguity of the sacred.” American scholars Mark Juerensmeyer and Scott Appleby argue that religions are inherently equivocal. Their volatile resources can be tilted towards irenic paths or towards paths of conflict and violence. 

Countering extremism requires theological and ethical engagement to direct particular religious traditions towards respectful pluralism and peaceful collaboration rather than combative exclusivism. Since religious traditions are bi-polar, education must work to reinforce the irenic and inclusive dimensions of religious traditions.

Arguably all of these approaches view religion (good, bad or ambiguous) as the interpretive key to the problem of extremism. However, in doing so they fail to position religious extremism within historical context. The modern era has been marked by waves of ideological extremism, revolutionary violence, and terrorism. The damage caused by religious extremism pales in comparison to the immense social and political trauma with tens of millions of lives lost in the waves of extremism that overtook Europe during the 1930s and 40s. 

Political scientist David Rapoport argues that movements of revolutionary extremism have been deeply embedded features of modern political cultures.

During the post-war era a generation of stellar scholars, including Hannah Arendt, Jacob Talmon and Raymond Aron, probed this gothic dimension of modernity. For the most part, these movements of ideological extremism were aggressively and thoroughly secular.  The early 20th century witnessed the rise of anarchist movements, totalitarian fascism, revolutionary Marxism and militant forms of nationalism. Each wave produced its own manifestos for the radical reconstruction of social and political order. Each wave believed that violent deeds communicated far more powerfully than idle words. Its militants were depicted in quasi-mythic terms, as warriors, heroes and martyrs.

Now, Rapoport notes, we are witnessing a fourth wave, a religious wave. Israeli sociologist S.N. Eisenstadt argues that the true ideological ancestors of this fourth wave are not traditionalist forms of religion, but Jacobin strains of revolutionary ideological extremism. Extremist ideologies appropriate a marker of human identity such as class, race, nationality or religion, they write manifestoes, transform real grievances into Manichean conflict, construct totalitarian visions of communal order, proclaim the need for revolutionary violence, and declare total war against pluralizing forces within modernity that would dilute their message. In periods of political destabilization these extremist imaginaries exert a dangerous allure for certain segments of societies. In recent decades this Jacobin strain in modernity has reconstituted itself in religious garb.

Contemporary educational strategies need to situate religious radicalization as one more chapter in this evolving story. We need to be telling the whole story. Modern forms of ideological extremism have caused immense social and political devastation. In exposing students to the dark side of modernity — National Socialism, Shinto nationalism, Stalinist Marxism and other forms of totalitarian violence — we provide them with a cross-cultural historical frame to critically and forcefully engage all forms of extremism, including religious extremism, as aberrant movements to which modern societies seem particularly vulnerable.   

"Contemporary educational strategies need to situate religious radicalization as one more chapter in this evolving story. We need to be telling the whole story."

Approached in this way, the West does not stand in judgment of others, but stands as a perpetrator, victim and survivor of its own home-grown brands of extremism that ravaged Europe during the mid 20th century. From this perspective, religion is not the culprit, any more than class, race or ethnicity were the cause of earlier forms of extremism. However, religion has now become the site haunted, invaded and expropriated by extremist ideologies attempting to birth new totalitarian visions.  

Article 26 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights highlights our international commitment to forms of education that “promote understanding, tolerance and friendship” across national, racial and religious diversities. There is a growing international recognition of the critical importance of education for development and security.   

However, promoting positive values and ideals will not adequately address this challenge. Pedagogical programs need to empower students to clearly understand, identify and critically confront the varied and evolving forms of ideological extremism that have been the drivers of egregious violations of human rights in the modern era. Framing modern forms of extremism, including their secular and religious variants, as expressions of an ideologically dark side of modernity, offers religious and non-religious actors a common platform for critical educational engagement. 

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