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March 10, 2005

Religion and Religious Extremism (Part 2)

(Continued from: Religion and Religious Extremism, part 1)

William Vendley
The panel has done a remarkable job to raise fundamental issues and I’d like to reflect back to you on three points and you’ve raised them in your own way. The first point, Prime Minister Bondevik, you ended with the challenge to the religious communities. I want to start there but then I’d like to look at the challenge to governments, then refer back to this question of Jihad which has been raised. The challenge to religions is a major front for all of us to deal with this issue.

There’s a kind of silent revolution that’s simply going on around the world. It doesn’t make our press, but in fact - and Prime Minister, you and I have been able to collaborate on a good bit of this – religious communities are organising and building for themselves inter-religious councils in some of the most difficult places in the world. In Sri Lanka, for example, where the Norwegian government was serving in a mediating role between the government in Sri Lanka and the Tamils in the north, there was a track two, Buddhist leaders were gathered and brought to Japan by other religious leaders, and there was a great exchange among the religious communities that did what governments simply couldn’t do, and in fact they worked in parallel.

We’ve seen the same things in Bosnia. We started there. Dick Holbrook, a remarkable diplomat, simply indicated to me personally: “Bill, you can’t get the religious leaders together.” In fact, they got together a little late. And they issued before their own country a single statement of moral purpose, which set out a program of common living. We could go through conflict and conflict, and the untold story is that religious leaders are often working with remarkable collaboration with one another in facing those problems.

And that goes with those massive developmental problems as well: 14 million orphans with AIDS, most of these people in countries with very poor governmental infrastructure. And who’s in all the villages? Who goes far beyond the governmental clinics? It’s the mosques and the churches.

Summarising that what we recognise, what we need to encourage, is that religions have their own infrastructure, their own ways of representing themselves, and we ought to encourage the systematic taking of leadership into their own hands and discerning among themselves deeply held and widely shared concerns. What’s happening is that religions are becoming bilingual, they’re learning to keep their own primary discourse and yet they’re discovering a form of public discourse, I don’t want to use ‘secular’, secular language is an evolving language, and religious have to contribute to that public meaning.

The challenge to governments, I think, is very major. In my judgement, governments do a very poor job of organising religions. I think it’s a job that not best assigned to governments. On the other hand, governments need mechanisms in which they can engage with religions and in particular with multi-religious mechanisms, so where they can, in fact, build bridges of understanding, and, where appropriate, build bridges of common action.

Finally, I think we’re all faced with a tragic dilemma. A word which is precious to well over a billion believers: the word Jihad has been captured, and unfortunately we know link, and a number of people who call themselves Muslims have made the link. They themselves call themselves “Global Jihadis.” But each of us ought to find our own religious language, and find a word that’s deeply precious to us, and then imagine a small group of extremists yanking that word by a particular interpretation, and in a sense capturing that word. The danger of that is not only the insult that that would provide to a religious consciousness, the danger is that the big question we face are the people in the balance, when in fact, we have all decided that the words Global Jihad go together. Then what about the ordinary good Muslim who hears the word precious to them in a central part of their spirituality, and hears that now linked with global terrorism? I think it’s a tragedy and I think we all ought to work together to find a better language for that.

We have less than twenty minutes now to try and draw this together. There have been so many points raised that I fear we are going to do an injustice to the issues because any one point in our session so far could take up the rest of the morning.

Three people have indicated they want to speak; no, four. That’s all I’m going to take because I think in fairness to the panellists we need to give them each time to respond very briefly to the points raised. So I am going to ask you please, don’t make a statement, a very crisp point or a question, otherwise I fear we will finish the session and we will all feel dissatisfied.

Just focusing again, there are two points I think we shouldn’t miss. One is the danger that religion can overshadow grievance. That is a very important point that we should… and again we have repeating claims tagged with different identities, another key issue that I think needs to be explored further. So I just put those two points out here at the time.

Delegate from the floor
[In French with interpreter]
The panel had spoken about the Jihad but they had missed the essence of the word. There shouldn’t be a mixture. An Islamist fundamentalist is not necessarily a religious extremist. There is the existence of an intergovernmental organisation, the Islamic conference, which, with the support of Western governments supports a religious extremism. The record of human rights of this group is unacceptable to the secular Muslims.

Delegate from the floor
[...] and currently at the National University of Singapore. I consider myself a liberal Muslim, and I have been working for more than 30 years on the subject of fundamentalism, and I have interviewed more than 2000 Islamists. And when I talk to them, I see they are men of religion. I am also a man of religion. But these Islamists, they argue that liberal Muslims are not true Muslims. Should I follow them and say they are not true Muslims? I propose to add to our panel understanding of religious extremists. So there are different interpretations of Islam. My interpretation and the interpretation of Sufi Islam, which I love, this is our interpretation. And they have another interpretation. But it is wrong to deny them of being Muslims. In my view their interpretation is wrong, but I want to understand them. Therefore I think what Radwan [Masmoudi] said is very precious. There is a time of crisis. And in a time of crisis, people resort to religion. And we need to understand why this interpretation of Islam is there. But if we say this has nothing to do with Islam, we will not be able to understand them. I think it is very important to promote inter-faith, mutual understanding, but it should be restricted to an ethical level.

And I agree with Syed. This is very intelligent- When it comes to conflict resolution, the conflict is political. We want to have Israel as a state and Palestine as a state. And this is the secular issue. If we bring the religion in the Jewish fundamentalist will speak about Eretz Israel, and our fundamentalists will speak about Palestine Islamiya and there will be no rapprochement. We need to understand religious extremism. It is not outside of religion, it is an interpretation of religion. Just a note to my esteemed colleague Hassan [Hanafi]. Hassan, I spent most of my life studying Hegel. Please don’t put dirt on him. What you said is wrong about Hegel.

Delegate from the floor
Very quickly, three points. First point: I really think the starting point of our discussion is to take an ethical standpoint. Which is to say: “we are against terrorism and we want to act against violence.” And this is the very starting point of the discussion. To go beyond is very important but to say we are against terrorism, and terrorism is not Islamic and it’s not religious and we cannot accept that and we want to work against violence. This is the first point but it’s really important! The second point is not to oversimplify the situation because we are acting against violence but we know rationally that the violence of the oppressed is not the same as the violence of the oppressor. So the point is that at one point when we deal with policies and we deal with politics it’s really important not to oversimplify that we are dealing with different fields. The problem that we have is that very often when we speak about religions we simplify the situation. And I’m really happy here to have this discussion about connections!

So the problem for us in not only to look for who are the guilty people but where lies our responsibility as people living in democratic societies. So I really think that what was said was really important from within the religious field its really important to have this intra-community dialogue, to challenge the people, to promote each they had and to say each they had. Say for example, you cannot say someone is a Muslim and someone else is not. The Muslim is not you to decide. So this intra-community dialogue, this should be the situation in every religious field. But we have also to say that we have to understand, to de-center ourselves to understand the policies and to understand the political situation in different countries. So why for example, in the southern countries many people could understand –it doesn’t mean that they are justifying– could understand that we resist out of violence. So this is something that we have to understand. To put it in our minds in the way we are dealing. So we have to connect religious people with politicians, with policies so to know in which way we have to deal with that. And the civil society. As citizens we are here, we have to know our responsibilities. We are promoting democracy. We want democracy, but what is our role in our societies to promote that? And what are we doing to go and to encounter the Muslims in our society, the non-religious people in our society? And I really think we are just looking for the guilty people. We are not doing our work as responsible citizens.

And the last point: look at the perception we have of the problems. You know yesterday I was a bit angry Radwan [Masmoudi]. You were speaking about democracy and terrorism. And people were right in their statements that we don’t have to have these bad perceptions of Muslims. They are not all terrorist. But in the panel, no Muslims. Here we are speaking about religious extremists and 4 Muslims. The perception is bad. We are democrats. We are European Muslims, Western Muslims, American Muslims. And is this, in our mind that we have millions of Muslim democrats in Europe, in America. And not only here: the great majority of the population in the Muslim world wants democratisation. So let us change our perceptions before speaking about encountering each other.

Delegate from the floor
I wonder if the panellist are as worried as I am about the discourse on terrorism in general? Because I think that discourse plays into a politics and a culture on fear, and encourages people to retreat into the safe borders of our own kind. Would it not be better to have a discourse on justice, under the conditions of globalised capitalism, which makes economic decisions irrespective of responsibility to any particular community? Are you worried that we will swamp the question of global justice in the narrowing discourse of terrorism?

Delegate from the floor
I want to build on what professor Hassan and Radwan say about the distinction between the symptoms and the root causes. I think this panel identified very well about what they call “Islamic terrorism”, which have to do with lack of power, with injustice, with oppression, with occupation, with encounter with the ‘other’ who is practising these things. I think it’s clear that all of these root causes are manifested, are at-play in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. There is no doubt, so in that sense Palestine is a microcosm of that. But what follows from that is the centrality of the Palestinian issue and I think that the international community should be keen on addressing the root causes in that particular place. But it does not follow that once you address the Palestinian-Israeli conflict that all conflicts in the Muslim world will be solved or that the whole issue or Islamic terrorism will be addressed. So Palestine is central, yes, but the root causes have to be solved and addressed in the many parts of the Muslim world.

Delegate from the floor
Both Mr. Bondevik and Mr. Mollov were talking about finding common ground and respect in solving the religious issue and trying to deal with extremist religion. My question would be: is there no risk in finding these common grounds? Is there no risk in creating more breeding grounds amongst the minorities within these religions to become extremist? Should you take away the differences by focusing on the common grounds? You also touch their identity, which I think partly showed in Holland when Theo Van Gogh was murdered. How do you look upon that issue?

Delegate from the floor
We have done an extremely apt discussion on problems. Can we focus on solutions? Restrictions? Recommendations? How can we improve the situation?

Hassan Hanafi
Well the right wing in Israel. Both are two sides of the same coin. And religion is only the form of its expression. But indeed, extremism is a socio-political phenomenon heavy in traditional societies […] forms of suppression. I wish […] was here to tell him what he is calling for as an ideal type. We all wish to live in a co-existence here when we have two equal societies, when we have two equal states. But once we have an unequal two partners, religion may play a role: from one side as an oppressive tool, from the other side, as a liberating tool, and maybe from the middle class, a certain kind of ideal type.

And finally I’m saying that everyone is remembering the 11th of September 2002. That’s fine. But who does remember the 28th of September 2001? When the Palestinian Intifada began, left alone by all the Arab neighbors and the whole world for 3 years and no one did cry that there is something here, something to ask about.

And for Europe? Why should Europe be an ally to U.S.A.? U.S.A. is playing its own role as an empire. Europe, with the Arab world, within the Mediterranean area can form one block. And finally concerning the solutions: Well, we hope that one day the Muslim world would be an equal part to Europe. We need some historical recognition. We need some ‘global justice’ as John Rein said. And for the Jihad, Jihad is never an offensive word. Jihad is a self-legitimate defense once you are attacked, kicked out of your home, according to the United Nation Charter, the right for every people to self-determination. And for my friend Bashan Tibi, Hegel spoke of cunning in history and war is a part of cunning in history, it is a part of constructive dynamics of history. That’s why war, as a realistic vision, cannot be shied away from.

Finally for the minorities: I think that minorities and majorities are quantitative concepts. But once we have a qualitative concept of society, a pluralistic society, that means if you have one person that does not have the same identity as the others, he is a whole community.

Ben Mollov
A number of points were raised relevant to this presentation. First of all to the gentlemen in the second row. You had raised the issue of the precedent of the very positive Arab-Muslim [sic] relations, among them in this very country so-many and so-many hundreds of years ago. And yes, it is important to recall that, and it’s even useful to some degree as a precedent. But to apply it given the conditions of the 21st century: the Jewish people have transformed itself, we now have a sovereign state in the Middle East, but definitely the spirit of that connection of seeking enlightenment together… I agree should be copied and emulated.

Mr Baracot [Syed Riza] here had raised the issue of the wall etc, etc., even though this isn’t in the area directly of this topic of panel, but there were a few things that occurred before the wall was created to precipitated the building of the wall. And those were things like the suicide bombings. We’re here in Madrid to commemorate a tragic event a year ago. Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Haifa, other places in Israel were rocked at certain times almost daily. Parents would call their children hearing a news bulletin: “are you o.k.” I personally survived a terror episode.

In terms of the issue of occupation which is constantly spoken about: as an Israeli I find myself perplexed. Our prime minister in the summer of 2000, maybe imperfectly, but nevertheless in a good faith effort, tried to reach an equitable conclusion. I can tell you, as an Israeli, we’re constantly soul-searching, we’re constantly talking about among ourselves, dinner conversations, how can we reach a situation that’s going to be feasible for all of us? So, maybe in terms of responsiveness on our account, I’m sorry maybe we’re not hearing the question. But the issue is not just declarations; the issue is how on the ground are we working.

And maybe in connection with that: the issue of vision. In my work on the ground in so-many and so-many years, with work with Palestinian partners in the university sector, with people on the Palestinian side who I came to admire, and respect deeply, people who I think tried to function in the spirit of Radwan described ‘seeking enlightenment’, seeing that the resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is only a means to end, and I mean that in a positive way, how their own society can be reformed. I say that as an Israeli as well. I have a vision of my own society to what it should be based on the vision on Israel as an exemplary place. But I would ask myself, in the context of a stable, and secure peace for both sides, what’s the ultimate vision? And to respond to your point, I would say: ideally I would, we would come to the point in two sovereign states but to the common commitment to the same land, a common commitment to building a holy land which would then be an example for the world.

Feisal Abdul Rauf
I’d just like to put in very quickly that the solution really has to be multi-tasking on several fronts. And they require, in my opinion, building coalitions adequate to the tasks involved and to the complexities of the tasks involved. There are many tasks, and just to continue from where I ended my discussion, the unfinished business of the Muslim world is how to develop within the constructs of the Islamic fort, democratic capitalist systems. Which means political systems and economic systems that are consistent with what we call Sharia compliant, or Islamicly compliant. And the unfinished business of the West is how to bring in religion so that the antipathy and polarisation between religion and the power structure and economic structures are not there. There needs to be this balance and that is what is contributing, in my opinion, to the rise of the religious right in the United States of America.

Now, there are certain tasks involved. One is the use of language. One of my constant complaints is that whatever Muslims do, they have them call is Islamic: our art, our architecture, our religion, our clothing, our food, our terrorism. Whatever we do: if we have furniture we call it “Islamic furniture”. But this is a problem of nomenclature and we’ve bought into it. So we have even notions of an Islamic state, which to my mind have not been clearly defined yet but need to be. So the use of language and how we define the use of language and how each side misunderstands the use of language.

I find myself very often using the analogy as my role as a marriage counselor, saying: “you know Mr. Smith, when you say so-and-so you’re wife hears ‘this’. And you, Mrs. Smith when you say such and such, your husband here is something very different.” And this analogy works even at the level of the Islamic world versus the Western world. We use language differently. So we need to create a common language, a common algorithm. And we do have the basis in terms of the fundamental metaphysics and as someone pointed out, a fundamental ethical basis. The ethical language in all our cultures is pretty much the same. So if we can create that kind of language that would be a very helpful issue.

Again, terrorism, I’d recommend a book by Kenneth Carr on the history of terror and the use of terrorism. Terrorism has been used throughout history, and has always been used for political ends. It has been used by governments, by individuals, by peoples, by groups. So to understand terrorism, not from a particular parochial point of view but we might say from a ‘Martian’, or objective point of view and to be able to indicate to each side how the other side views what its doing as an act of terrorism.

I think those are the points, and again: multi-tasking and building a coalition for the common good. Thank you.

Radwan Masmoudi
The main thing I wanted to say it that if the war on terror is perceived as a war on Islam, then we lost the war, and the extremists have won. This is extremely important to understand. And right now, my feeling, my evaluation is that we are losing the war on terror because it’s exactly how it’s being perceived in the majority of Muslim countries, as a war against Islam. And it’s a very, very dangerous trend, which will of course create millions of possible recruits for Al Qaeda or any other extremist group.

So the main solution is to promote greater understanding on both sides. Of course there is a lack of understanding in the Muslim world of what the West really stands for. But there is an even bigger lack of understanding of Islam in the West, and in the United States in particular. The level of ignorance in the West and in the United States about Islam is mind-boggling and very, very dangerous. And when somebody like Dhar Dramadan, for example, is denied a visa to teach at University of Notre Dame in the United States, that tells you that there is very little dialogue going on.

The second solution is of course, like I mentioned several times: freedom and democracy. The West has been supporting oppressive regimes in the Arab world and in most of the Muslim world. This is a fact. The Arabs and the Muslims are very upset over this and very angry over this. I’m glad that, as an American citizen myself, my country is starting to change its policies (I wouldn’t go as far to say completely change its policies, but it’s starting to realize that this is very, very dangerous, and not in the long-term interests of the United States or of Europe or of peace and humanity in general.) I’m waiting to see the same signals from Europe. Frankly, I see that nothing has changed in the European politics. It’s business as usual dealing with these oppressive, totalitarian, authoritarian regimes in the Arab world in the name of stability. But if anything we’ve learned from 9/11 it’s that this is fake stability. This is not real stability. We are not going towards a more stable world by encouraging these regimes.

The third solution, and this is also a long-term solution is reopening the door of Ishjihad, of debate between the Muslim community, within the Muslims themselves, about what it means to be a Muslim in the 21st century. Everybody for a hundred years has been calling for the reopening of the door of Ishjihad. But when we live in oppressive regimes, when we cannot talk about anything, how can we reopen the door of Ishjihad? So in my opinion, freedom and democracy has to come first because otherwise… Right now we can’t talk about anything. I was involved in a conference in Cairo organised by Said Abrahim, and we were mobbed, we were attacked within the conference itself by a group of people because they were not happy that we were having a discussion among 20 people. So we cannot have any discussions about Ishjihad in the Arab world. How can we talk about Ishjihad?

So I think, at the end of the day, I think there is a very positive trend, that people are reawakening in the Muslim world. There is an almost universal condemnation of terrorism in the Muslim world. It’s important to understand this. People in the Muslim world do not support 9/11 and in fact there is a denial, to this date. People still cannot believe that Muslims committed 9/11.

Brian Glyn Williams
Of course it’s a tendency to speak in general and philosophical terms, it’s very difficult to get down to specifics but I think one cannot ignore the dimensions of the hostility that’s arisen between Islam and the West, and we have received this issue in this context. While we can speak of interfaith dialogue and so on, the fact is that on both sides of the divide it is the extremists who are setting the agenda, although the moderate majorities are not of the same belief as the extremists, but it is the extremists who are setting the agenda.

And the role of the media simply creates stereotypes and demonisation and leads to even further polarisation at the level of the so-called “street”. Well what can one do in these situations? First, there’s a question of double standards. As far as the West, and I’m generalising, one has to oversimplify in three minutes, supporting dictatorships when it suits them, speaking about democracy on other occasions.

Occupation: “immediate withdrawal by the Syrians from Lebanon although there is the Dive accord but one UN resolution, you must have immediate withdrawal.” The Prime Minister of Israel calls for that after 40 years of occupation, I’m sorry but double standards do not help.

Islamic societies have to look at themselves, within themselves. They have to move within the modern age. We know they’ve been stagnant. They have not kept up with historical forces, with historical developments. The reopening of Ishjihad, as has been mentioned. Those are tasks that Islamic societies have to take upon themselves. They cannot keep blaming the West or colonialism or history.

Last: Yes, the future lies in what we call democracy. But let us not try and impose certain models of democracy on other societies. Any change in any society is a long difficult historical process. It cannot be rushed. It cannot be imposed. All Muslim societies are now realising that they have to go in that direction. Please do not push them over another brink. Thank you.

Prime Minister Bondevik
First of all I want to draw your attention to religious extremism. It often seems to be associated with social change. And in a changing world, with the challenges that this poses, religion is often seen as a protection. We have to be aware of that. For some it becomes a cry for action, a mobilising force in a violent struggle against the agents of change. Thus we should not be surprised. The post-globalisation and economic and social development are provoking political, religious reactions. And this has happened also before in history, in periods of rapid change. Because many people feel that they threaten identities and traditional structures. This is an explanation we have to be aware of.

Let me also mention a very concrete example of how important it is to include the religious dimension in the solution. It was mentioned the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and we had the Palestinian chief negotiator, Syed Barakat [Riza] here. I was in the region some weeks ago and discussed with Christian-Muslims and Jewish religious leaders about peace efforts. And it’s very clear to me that without the religious dimension we would not have a final settlement. And especially you will see it in the issue of the control over the holy places in Jerusalem. And President Clinton has explained to me how difficult these walls were in the final negotiations of Camp David and in Tava. Control over the Temple Heights or Haram al-Sharif, as they call it, is crucial. This is the center of the three monotheistic religions. And you have to have free access for all of them to their holy places. So to the recommendations.

First of all we have to be aware of the draw of the media. Media often reinforced popular prejudices and fears. The way Muslims and Arabs are portrayed in Western media very often tends to alienate Muslims everywhere, and to revive an old European fear of Islam. And we still see instances of anti-Semitism, also in Western media. Elsewhere is no better. The Arab media sometimes portray Jews and Christians in a way that reinforces anti-Semitism and hatred of the imperialist West. We have to be aware of this; the role of media.

Second: Inter-religious dialogue. I think this will happen. I have found that when you gather religious leaders it is rather easy to increase the understanding. The challenge is to bring this understanding down to the grassroots level, to the different congregations. That is more complicated. This is a challenge to the religious.

Thirdly: Education. Start with the pupils, with the children. Educate them in the understanding of other religions, not only your own. From the Norwegian side we have had a dialogue with Morocco on this. We have initiated a common project within the framework of UNESCO, for education and also with religions in different countries. Because in my view, religion is a point of contact. Religion is the meaning of life for millions of us. So let us use this source and this value to spread reconciliation instead of hatred. It is possible to use religion to be a part of the solution.

I had the task of summing everything up but I am going to be extremely brief. I thank you for your patience in allowing us to extend the session.

I think, from the wide and varied discussion we’ve had, I see a triple challenge. First is the challenge to the secularist mindset that has dominated political thinking for the past hundred years, and is still prevalent and most so in peace processes. And that challenge is to acknowledge that religion does matter, that religion can be part of the cause, it also can be part of the solution. And hopefully the Madrid agenda will take that message to the political world. We need a paradigm shift. We need a new mindset that recognises religion is most dangerous when it’s ignored or excluded. So it must be part of each agenda.

The second challenge from the panellists and from the floor is that religious communities must put their own house in order. And this extends to all faith communities. We were hoping to get the message out loud and clear, that this is not a Muslim problem or phenomenon. That all religions are tainted by the use of violence, and the abuse of power when it’s in their interest. And I think to deny that is to deny the historical record and the contemporary reality of the world we live in today. So I think that is another message from the Madrid Summit to religious leaders: put your house in order. Address the ambiguities that are in each and every religious traditions foundational texts and scriptures that allow believers, sincerely, misguidedly though, to interpret their texts in a way that they sanction violence.

And lastly, the challenge that the Prime Minister made eloquently there, is to the media. And that is to stop oversimplifying the issue. I think a great part of the problem has been our 24-hour news culture that needs sound bites and the sound bites have actually contributed to the problem rather than helped find a solution.

May I thank each of the panellists for their discipline. They could have taken up each one of them the whole session but also may I thank you for your contributions and apologise to those who did not have the opportunity to make their points fully but it is the constraints of time.

With the collaboration ofSafe Democracy Foundation
Members of the Club de Madrid

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