In the fight against religious extremism, there is one defence regularly projected by religious and non-religious persons alike: the claim that the ‘bad’ persons of a given religion, with their ‘bad’ interpretations of a given religious text, are not of the given religion at all. For clarity, I will refer to the two most familiar cases of religious extremism to all – the KKK (also bear in mind sects such as the Westborough Baptist church and traditional Catholicism), and Daesh (ISIS), plus extremist states and forces such as Saudi Arabia, Al Qaeda and the Taliban.
It seems appealing, kind and liberal to affirm that only those who do not turn to hatred and violence are truly religious. How often have we defended Christianity from the smearing of the KKK and Islam from the tarnishing power of Daesh? There are a number of reasons why good people take up this perception, not least because it prevents all persons of a given religion being the target of wrongful hatred and injustice. Nevertheless, this appears to me as an easy way out: it prevents us from analysing religion in its entirety – preventing us from acknowledging that the concept of religion is inherently flawed, subjective and the property of anyone who wishes to claim it, whether we like it or not. It does not matter whether you are the kindest Christian or the most egalitarian Muslim – your good nature does not allow you to claim a religion as only yours. Religion is an abstract concept, fuelled by religious texts full of contradictions: perhaps the most overt example of this lies in the lines “Islam meant […] The active attainment of peace through conflict’ (c. 38 The Meaning of the Holy Quran). Those who say that Islam does not call for the creation of an Islamic state or the death of non-believers forget that, historically, the prophet Muhammad’s preaching led to blood-shed and war, not only with people willingly sacrificing their lives ‘for its sake’ (p. xxi, ibid), but with those who opposed being killed and their country being taken over by Islam. Puzzlingly, the Quran also cites that non-believers ‘will not believe’ whether you ‘warn’ them of Allah’s wrath or not, implying that it is not Muslims’ duty to punish non-believers.
Islam has regularly been criticised for sexist beliefs too, and the Quran indeed instructs this:
‘Men are in charge of women […] righteous women are devoutly obedient […] But those [wives] from whom you fear arrogance – [first] advise them; [then if they persist], forsake them in bed; and [finally], strike them.’ 4.34.
However, those who argue that the Quran does not advocate the oppression of women are not wrong in their claim either. C.19 claims that the prophet ‘stood for all humanity’ and ‘made his special care all those/ whom the world neglected or oppressed’. The text goes on to explicitly include women in this.
Christianity is infinitely similar in the opportunity it provides for a multitude of opposing interpretations. While most argue – quite fairly – that the bible verses used as justification by the KKK do not in fact refer to race at all, the bible nonetheless implies division amongst humanity and provides the basis for racial hatred and violence:
‘When the Lord your God brings you into the land which you are entering to possess […] you shall utterly destroy them. You shall not […] show mercy and compassion to them. You shall not intermarry with them’ Deuteronomy 7.
‘the slave’s master will […] punch a hole through the slave’s ear using a sharp tool. Then the slave will serve that master all his life.’ Exodus 21:4-5
Those who condemn Islam for its treatment of women often overlook the subjugation of women that exists in the Bible:
‘I do not allow a woman to teach a man or to have authority over a man. She must remain silent. 13 […] It was the woman who was tricked and became a sinner. 15 But women will be saved through having children.’ Timothy, 2:11
The Bible simultaneously states that ‘there is no […] slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all’ and asks Christians to ‘clothe’ themselves in ‘compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience.’ Colossians 3:11-12. This seems a difficult task to pursue while also possessing slaves, condemning women to being silent, childbearing machines and waging war on those whose land you invade in the name of spreading your religion.
The Bible and the Quran (if not all religious texts) are doctrines calling for both ‘good’ and ‘evil’. One can conclude from this that religion breeds – and justifies – both ‘good’ and ‘evil’ human beings. Only when we accept religion for what it is – a flawed, subjective, contradictory multiplicity of concepts – will we accept both the good and bad that claims its basis in religion; only then can we purposefully seek to correct religious hatred, violence and oppression. Arguably, this process is indeed underway with the calling out of extremist groups as being separate from a certain religion: Muslims and Christians alike reject the idea that they are at one with religious hatred and violence, and they are beginning to reclaim their religion in a way that promotes love, peace, social cohesion and rejects extremism. However, rather than denying the inclusion of negative messages within religion altogether, perhaps we must all accept that these things do exist in the texts and thus that a more direct, modernised version of religion – the anti-hatred and anti-violence style of religion that the vast majority of people choose to adopt – should be codified in order to further validate the good that exists within religious texts and the admirable people who have chosen to reclaim religion for the good of humanity.