Jul 30th 2019

The Abuse of Religion to Foster Extremism is a Universal Phenomenon

by James J. Zogby

Dr. James J. Zogby is the President of the Arab American Institute

 

When Americans express concern about religious extremism and violence, they almost always are thinking about Islam. The problems posed by the politicization and weaponization of religion, however, are deeper, more widespread, and more dangerous. 

Several years ago, I moderated a panel discussion on "Using Religion to Justify Violence." The panelists, which included former government officials and prominent media analysts, focused their remarks exclusively on Islam.

When it was my turn to ask questions of the speakers, I attempted to broaden the conversation, asking pointed questions about: then-President George W. Bush's penchant for saying that in executing the war against Iraq he was carrying out "God's will;" or the growing threat of white "Christian militias" operating in remote areas of the US; or the Christian evangelical movement's belief that Israel's conquest of Palestinian land and oppression of Palestinians was justified by biblical prophecy. The panelists would have none of it and treated my questions as merely a distraction from their discussion of Islam and Muslims. 

Just for the record, I have a PhD in Comparative Religions and spent extensive time studying both the Abrahamic faiths and the religions of India. With this background, I feel comfortable asserting that all of the world's major religions have groups and individuals who have used and are today using religion to justify violent behavior and extreme political objectives. In some countries, extremist and violent currents, far from being on the margins, are in the mainstream. 

The current ruling party in India, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), headed by Narendra Modi, rode to power on a wave of extreme Hindu nationalism. Modi himself was for many years banned from entry into the United States for the role he played in fomenting anti-Muslim riots that took the lives of over one thousand. And in Sri Lanka, there are Buddhist militias who complain that Muslims are occupying "Buddhist lands" and have, therefore, sworn to wipe out the Muslim threat to their island country.

Christianity, of course, has not been immune from these extremist currents. One need not go back to the Crusades or even to the way the Christian religious language was used to mobilize support for the two World Wars and other wars since that time. Back then, as patriotic crowds sang "Onward Christian soldiers...," Americans were taught that we were killing "the Godless Huns."

Just this month, Washington played host to Christians United for Israel (CUFI), which can only be described as a religious extremist group, arguing that their support of Israel is essential to carrying out God's plan – which includes, among other things, the in-gathering of the Jews, their eventual conversion to Christianity leading to the Battle of Armageddon, and the return of Jesus. The fact that speakers at this event, including the Secretary of State and the Vice President share this extremist ideology, and speak openly of fulfilling "God's plan" must also be acknowledged. 

And then there's the problem of extreme Jewish nationalism which includes a number of influential Israeli parties and political and religious leaders among its adherents. A number of prominent rabbis have been quoted arguing that because "the souls of Gentiles aren't human" the commandment "thou shall not kill" doesn't apply to taking their lives.   
 
This problem, therefore, of the use of religion to justify an extreme political agenda is worldwide, as is the weaponization of religion – that is the use of religion to validate violence against others. This is clear enough in the case of the Sri Lanka Buddhist militias, Modi's incitement against Muslims, al Qaeda's or Hamas' acts of violence against innocents or even those of the Jewish settlers who have tormented Palestinians in the occupied territories ( one prominent faction of which is called "Gush Emunim" – "the band of the faithful.")  

It is, therefore, of critical importance that we understand, expose, and combat this problem of the politicization and weaponization of religion – which is the use and abuse of religion. 

In the first place, we must see it as a universal problem plaguing all societies. No religion is immune. 

Next, we must understand that the reason why it occurs is less the fault of the particular religion, in question. There are no justifications that can be found in any of the religions, as they have evolved over time, to justify the slaughter of innocents or the violation of their rights or dispossession of their properties – not in the teachings of the Buddha, the Vedas, the Upanishad, the Mosaic Law or the prophetic vision of Isaiah, the Quran, or the teachings of Jesus.  

Those who pluck a quote from here or there to validate their political ideology or justify their behavior, therefore, are not carrying out their faith as much as they are using the language and scripture of their faith to validate their politics. The reason it works is because religious language is evocative and has power. It's one thing to say, "I'm killing you because I want your land" and quite another to say, as the Sri Lankan militants might say, "this is Buddhist land," or the Jewish extremists say, "this is the land God promised to us."        

The bottom line is that discernment is in order. Faith is central to the understanding of religion. By definition, faith is different than certainty. It implies a belief in what is unknown. This is radically different than political ideology which is always certain. When religious language is used to validate political ideologies, the mix becomes a lethal brew. Religion is no longer "belief." It is abused. 

The question "why and how does this occur" has two answers. In the first place, blame must be cast on groups and leaders who exploit the power of religious language to advance their political agenda. And then there is the need to identify the root causes that lead some to join these groups and follow these leaders.  

From both polling we have done and the body of sociological literature on this topic we are able to identify several factors – most of which point to the loss of control that individuals experience most often resulting from severe economic and political stress and social dislocation. In some societies it may be due to the shock of urbanization and the rapid social change that follows. In other cases, it may be economic recession, the loss of employment, and uncertainty about the future. Then there are those instances where prolonged disenfranchisement and discrimination result in individuals experiencing deep alienation. In all these situations, individuals lose their moorings, and seeking answers to explain their circumstances, become easy prey for leaders or movements that exploit their fear and insecurity.    

By couching their message with familiar religious language, these groups and leaders "explain" to their vulnerable targets the source of their followers’ sense of a lack of control. This usually includes two themes. First there is a call to return to the "old ways" – from which we get the term "fundamentalism." They will denounce the "sinful" present while glorifying (and "romanticizing") a "perfect past." This is often accompanied by a demonizing another group or a way of life that is identified as the source of present problems. 

In different societies and at different times, this has taken various forms. The "other" may be: a vulnerable minority found within that society whose rise to power is feared as a threat to their "way of life"; a threatening external foe; or an emerging group within the society that is identified as the cause of the social dislocation. It may also be lifestyle changes resulting from social transformation. 

This pattern holds true in every extremist movement I have studied, whether from the past or the present, or the West or the East. This abuse of religion that provides security and certainty to those who are experiencing a loss of control is a universal phenomenon. If merely left there, it would not be a danger. But when it masks a political agenda or when it justifies violence either by groups or state actors, it becomes a danger. To denounce it is one thing. But to limit our criticism to its manifestation in only one faith and to fail to understand and address its root causes, is quite another. 

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Aug 21st 2019
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Aug 20th 2019
EXTRACTS: "It is no exaggeration to say that Johnson has lied his way to the top, first in journalism and then in politics. His ascent owes everything to the growing xenophobia and English nationalism that many Conservatives now espouse................Johnson has chosen a government of like-minded anti-European nationalists. His principal adviser, Dominic Cummings, was described by David Cameron, Britain’s prime minister from 2010 to 2016, as a “career psychopath.” Cummings is, alongside Johnson, the most powerful figure in the new government; he is an unelected wrecker who earlier this year was ruled to be in contempt of parliament. Fittingly, if depressingly, he now is masterminding our departure from the EU with or without parliamentary approval."
Aug 19th 2019
EXTRACTS: "Back in May, a jury found Patrick Syring, a former State Department official, guilty of 14 counts of making threats against my life and my staff at the Arab American Institute. This week, a federal judge sentenced Syring to five years in prison to be followed by three years of court-ordered probation.................It gives me no pleasure to see this man going to jail for a long period, but it does provide us all with a sense of enormous relief. I've been threatened before. My wife, my children, and I have received death threats for the past 50 years – owing to my advocacy for Palestinian rights and the rights of the Arab American community. My office was fire-bombed and an Arab American colleague, whom I hired, was murdered. Two individuals who, in the past, made death threats against me and my children were convicted and sentenced to prison terms. But this case was different."
Aug 15th 2019
EXTRACT: "Gaslighting typically refers to intimate relationships. It’s a way of controlling someone by creating false narratives – for example, that they are irrational or crazy. If such lies are repeated constantly, victims may get confused and start believing there really is something wrong with them. Confusion, diversion, distraction and disinformation can similarly be used to gaslight an entire society. So how can you tell if you are being gaslighted, and how do you avoid it in the first place?"
Aug 14th 2019
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Aug 5th 2019
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Jul 31st 2019
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Jul 30th 2019
Extract: "This pattern holds true in every extremist movement I have studied, whether from the past or the present, or the West or the East. This abuse of religion that provides security and certainty to those who are experiencing a loss of control is a universal phenomenon. If merely left there, it would not be a danger. But when it masks a political agenda or when it justifies violence either by groups or state actors, it becomes a danger."
Jul 30th 2019
Extract: "......the day before Mueller testified, the current FBI director, Christopher Wray, told the Senate Judiciary Committee, “The Russians are absolutely intent on trying to interfere with our elections.” And the day after Mueller testified, the Senate Intelligence Committee issued a report stating that Russia would be involved in the next presidential election, and that countries like Saudi Arabia, Iran, and China have the capacity to interfere in US elections as well. Despite these warnings, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell blocked Senate consideration of two bills aimed at strengthening US election security,....."
Jul 15th 2019
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Jul 6th 2019
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Jul 6th 2019
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Jul 3rd 2019
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Jul 1st 2019
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Jun 25th 2019
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Jun 19th 2019
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Jun 19th 2019
Extract: "Abe has reportedly nominated Trump for a Nobel Peace Prize – at the request of the US – for opening talks with North Korea. And he has offered to mediate in America’s dispute with Iran. (His recent visit to Tehran – where he reportedly asked Iran’s leaders, at Trump’s request, to release detained Americans – made clear that, even squeezed by sanctions, Iran has no interest in negotiating with a serial violator of signed agreements.) What Trump calls an “incredible partnership” is, in reality, a largely one-sided relationship. But, for Abe, appeasing Trump is not so much a choice as a necessity: he must prove to Japan’s people and their neighbors, particularly the Chinese, that he knows how to keep Trump on his side."
Jun 17th 2019
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Jun 11th 2019
Extract: "I noticed this dynamic firsthand a few years ago in Blagoveshchensk, on the Siberian border, just a half-mile from the Chinese town of Heihe. A century and a half ago, Blagoveshchensk was part of China. Then the Cossacks took control of it, along with many other territories in Chinese Outer Manchuria, on behalf of the Russian czar. Blagoveshchensk’s local history museum presents the development of the town after the Cossack takeover as a civilizing mission. The Russians, it seems, still view themselves as superior Westerners. As for Heihe, it got rich a quarter-century ago, after capitalizing on Russia’s post-Soviet disarray to sell cheap goods to then-starving Russians. Its own history museum presents the Cossacks as “hairy barbarians” (Lao Maozi) and lists the towns of Russia’s far east by their historical Chinese names: Blagoveshchensk is Hailanpao, Vladivostok is Haishenwai, and Sakhalin is Kuye. Local behavior reflects these perspectives. At the ferry port, the Russians sneer at the Chinese traders who bring Russian vodka and chocolate to Heihe, while the Chinese move past the Russians as if they do not exist."
Jun 5th 2019
Extract: "....the Constitution, which established the impeachment process as a check on the president’s behavior between elections, says nothing about using it only when politically convenient. Moreover, given the results in 2018, Democratic Party leaders might well discourage making the disposition of the president the key issue in the next election. Most important, a decision not to initiate an impeachment process against Trump could set a terrible precedent. If Trump isn’t impeached for his numerous criminal acts and abuses of power, would impeachment remain a viable check on the presidency? "