by Jon Atack
It is important to differentiate humane from destructive interpretations of religion. Religious extremism has been a major cause of human suffering throughout recorded history. As the Dalai Lama has said, “The whole purpose of religion is to facilitate love and compassion, patience, tolerance, humility, forgiveness.”
People have justified the most barbaric acts with claims to sacred duty. As Pascal said, “Men never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do it from religious conviction.”
All too often, religious extremists have led their followers to commit atrocities through a dogmatic belief in inhumane ideas. The contemporary focus is on terrorist acts committed by Muslim zealots, who have allied a fundamentalist interpretation of their faith with guerrilla tactics devised by revolutionary Marxists.
Hatred of the Minority
And yet, less than half a per cent of Muslims are followers of the Salafi or Wahhabi faction of Sunni Islam, and most of these are not militant, but the acts of the few thousand followers of Daesh and Al Qaeda have stirred hatred towards all Muslims. This hatred has swelled support for the militant Wahhabis, just as they intend.
The Troubles in Northern Ireland became an internecine war between Protestants and Catholics. Extremists on both sides believed that they were the true Christians, with little thought for the teachings of the Prince of Peace they claimed to be following.
Religion as an Excuse
Destructive bigots have frequently used religious belief as an excuse for vicious anti-social behaviour throughout history. Christian extremists destroyed the greatest library of the ancient world at Alexandria. The Iconoclasts destroyed great art, as did the English Puritans of the 17th century. Muslim extremists have destroyed much great art due to their fundamentalist misinterpretation of the Qu’ran.
The Crusades, the Inquisition, the Huguenot wars, the witch-hunts and many persecutions have stigmatized Christianity. But extremism is not limited to any particular religion: after partition in India in 1947, as many as two million people may have died in conflicts between Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs.
In the lead up to WWII, unthinking obedience was fostered in the Japanese public with the cult of the Emperor and “Soldier Zen“. Leading Zen Buddhist teachers have acknowledged the error of this teaching, and apologised for it.