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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Oct 7th 2019
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Oct 4th 2019
EXTRACT: "As the story spreads, it grows darker. Meanwhile, Trump is trying to learn the identity of the whistleblower (who is protected by law), which could expose that person to great danger. And he is accusing some people – including Adam Schiff, the chair of the House Intelligence Committee – of treason. My sense is that Trump fears the tough, focused Schiff. Trump has ominously noted that traitors used to be shot or hanged. And he hasn’t helped himself with members of either party by declaring, in one of his hundreds of febrile tweets, that forcing him from office could lead to a “civil war.” Trump has taken the United States somewhere it’s never been before. His presidency may not survive it."
Sep 24th 2019
EXTRACT: "But regardless of whether the Ukraine scandal remains front-page news, it will haunt the US intelligence community, which has been Trump’s bête noire since the day he took office. Trump has relentlessly attacked US intelligence agencies, cozied up to Russian President Vladimir Putin, and divulged secrets to foreign officials, potentially burning high-value sources. This behavior had already raised serious concerns about whether Trump can be trusted to receive sensitive intelligence at all. Now, intelligence leaders must ask themselves how far they are willing to go in toeing the White House line."
Sep 21st 2019
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Sep 16th 2019
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Sep 12th 2019
Extract: "The Republican Party has lashed its fate to an increasingly unhinged leader. Though three other presidential hopefuls for 2020 now stand in Trump’s way, none can defeat him. But they can damage his reelection effort, which is why the Republican Party has been scrapping some primaries and caucuses. How well Trump does in November next year may well depend on how his fragile ego withstands the coming months."
Sep 2nd 2019
EXTRACTS: "Most people think of revolutions as sudden earthquakes or volcanic eruptions that come without warning and sweep away an entire political system. But historians, political scientists, and even the odd politician know that the reality is very different: revolutions happen when systems hollow themselves out, or simply rot from within. Revolutionaries can then brush aside established norms of behavior, or even of truth, as trivialities that should not impede the popular will............ Only time will tell whether we are currently witnessing the hollowing out of British democracy. But Prime Minister Boris Johnson may well have crossed some invisible Rubicon by.......... Whatever happens now, British parliamentary democracy may never be the same again. It will certainly never again be the model that so many people around the world once admired."
Aug 29th 2019
EXTRACT: "Events such as prorogations and dissolutions happen when countries face difficult times. Therefore, because of the disastrous effects of Brexit: sterling in freefall; a recession looming on the horizon and Britain’s international standing at its lowest ebb since Suez, it is no surprise that the country is in this position now. The worrying thing is that using the monarchical power of prorogation does not solve problems – it has a history of turning them into frightening and often violent crises. There is a worrying relationship between the use of such powers and a complete breakdown in government."
Aug 28th 2019
EXTRACT: "Reminiscent of Don Quixote, Trump is tilting at windmills. His administration is flailing at antiquated perceptions of the Old China that only compound the problems it claims to be addressing. Financial markets are starting to get a sense that something is awry. So, too, is the Federal Reserve. Meanwhile, the global economy is fraying at the edges. The US has never been an oasis in such treacherous periods. I doubt if this time is any different. 
Aug 24th 2019
EXTRACT: "In fact, with firms in the US, Europe, China, and other parts of Asia having reined in capital expenditures, the global tech, manufacturing, and industrial sector is already in a recession. The only reason why that hasn’t yet translated into a global slump is that private consumption has remained strong. Should the price of imported goods rise further as a result of any of these negative supply shocks, real (inflation-adjusted) disposable household income growth would take a hit, as would consumer confidence, likely tipping the global economy into a recession."
Aug 21st 2019
EXTRACT: "Climate change is real, and it is a problem. According to the IPCC, the overall impact of global warming by the 2070s will be equivalent to a 0.2-2% loss in average income. That’s not the end of the world, but the same as a single economic recession, in a world that is much better off than today.  The risk is that outsized fear will take us down the wrong path in tackling global warming. Concerned activists want the world to abandon fossil fuels as quickly as possible. But it will mean slowing the growth that has lifted billions out of poverty and transformed the planet. That has a very real cost. "
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
EXTRACT: "Trump has once again painted himself into a corner. Since the latest massacres, he’s been at pains to present himself as a reasonable fellow who can get behind gun reform (and perhaps mollify suburban women, his most dangerous foes on this issue). But he’s also noticeably (and typically) anxious to maintain the loyalty of the rural voters who form an important part of his base. Trump has also taken the gamble of using racial politics and white supremacy as instruments for winning in 2020. When faced with the dilemma of trying to assuage suburban voters or keeping the base close, time after time his instinct has been to shore up the base. (That didn’t work very well in 2018.)"
Aug 5th 2019
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Jul 31st 2019
Extract: "I admire the US for its culture, entrepreneurialism, and universities, and I have many American friends. Furthermore, I know how grateful the rest of the world has to be for US leadership after World War II. Never before had a victorious power behaved so generously toward others, including the defeated. We owe so much to US policy in the second half of the twentieth century. But although I am no declinist regarding American economic, intellectual, and military power, the country’s soft power has certainly decreased, and its positive influence around the world has declined. The reason for this is simple: US President Donald Trump is a bad man surrounded by a bad team of incompetent and dangerous ideologues."
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
".....one of the most accurate recession indicators, known as the yield curve, has recently been flashing warning signs. Every postwar recession in the US was preceded by an inversion of the yield curve, meaning that long-term interest rates had fallen below short-term interest rates, some 12 to 18 months before the outset of the economic downturn."