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March 10, 2005

Religion and Religious Extremism

Moderator: Oliver McTernan
Panellists: Kjell Magne Bondevik, Feisal Abdul Rauf, S. Iqbal Riza, Hassan Hanafi, Radwan A. Masmoudi, Ben Mollov
Respondents: William Vendley, Brian Glyn Williams

The panel Religion and Religious Extremism dealt with the complex relationship between violence and faith. Some panellists argued that the revival of religion, in particular that of a politicised version of Islam, was related to the prolonged social and economic crisis in the Arab world. The key was to channel the anger of young people with little economic or social perspective into constructive directions. There was agreement, for example, that the clergy needed to teach tolerance and respect. The best solution, however, was to construct viable political and economic systems.


Complete audio of the conference

Transcription / Transcripción

[...] religious extremism. We’ve got a very [...] panel and we’re dealing with a very large subject. My task is to try and keep the session flowing and at the same time to ensure that we don’t sacrifice on content or substance. We will ask each of the panelists to make a short introduction of three to five minutes highlighting the points they consider important in this area of debate. And after three of the panelists have introduced themselves briefly –you don’t need to have a detailed introduction because it’s a already in your programme, the short bio of each person–, but after they introduce the thoughts, we’ll have for I will invite the floor to respond. And then we will move on to having four more panelists present their thoughts. So, we’ve got quite a meaty session, you might say, ahead of us. I waste no further time other than just reiterate again the important thing is that you are part of this, you share your thoughts, and there should be plenty of opportunity for questions.

I will ask the Prime Minister of Norway, Mr. Bondevik, to begin. Thank you.

Kjell Bondevik
Thank you, moderator.
I would start by saying that faith in God gives life meaning and direction for millions of people. That is our starting point. But this means that people also often express their desires and goals and also their anger in religious terms. Unfortunately religion, like patriotism can also be misused for political purposes. However, it is important to see politics and religion as distinct and separate dimensions of our lives. But despite of that, there are strong links between religion and politics. And for instance my political commitment is based on fundamental Christian values, for instance protecting human life and dignity, the idea of peace and reconciliation, and to observing the Ten Commandments, which can be summed up in the Commandment “Love thy neighbor as thyself.”

All religions can be misused by extremists who are seeking to find arguments for persecution or a holy war. History has shown it again and again. We have seen it in Christianity, in the form of the Medieval Crusades, and the persecution of non-Christian and heretics right up to our own times. I am thinking for instance of the so-called “Army of God” in the U.S. which condones the killing of medical personnel who are involved in abortions.

We have seen it in Judaism; the very expression “zealot” comes from a group of Jews who used assassination in their fight against the Romans and the Romanization of the Jews. And we see it today in the form of groups such as Khatz, and Chanitri.

And we have seen it in Islam. The word “assassin” comes from an extremist Muslim sect of the 11th Century, which used murder as a tool in their fight against the crusaders and mainstream Muslim leaders. Today Al Qaeda is the most prominent example of terrorists who misuse Islam. But we have also seen by terrorists of other religions in places like India and Japan.

Religion is often used as a unifying force against occupation and social injustice. And in these cases, the enemy is often portrayed as an “unbeliever”. But I believe that these instances of misuse are more a question of local culture and political environment than of religion. What can we then do? We must take a broad approach to those who misuse and misinterpret religious texts. We need a clergy that leads their congregation along a path of love and tolerance. Theological institutions should teach their students tolerance, and respect through courses in the other world religion and through exchange programs.

Secondly, I believe it’s necessary to introduce children in a way that promotes respect to all the world religions as well as their own faith, even at primary school. And I would like the chance to stress the word “respect.” Respect comes from understanding, not from stereotyping and teaching should reflect this. We should also make sure that our own religions are communicated to children in a way that protects them from manipulation by extremists. They should learn to think for themselves and not accept what they are told uncritically. This is just as valuable for religion as for other fields of knowledge.

Last but not least, all religions can and should be included in the inter-religious dialogue. Inter-religious dialogue does not mean ignoring differences or renouncing one’s own values or faith. I mean that despite the differences, we have some main important common values among most of the religions, especially among the three monotheistic ones. I’m thinking of the idea of human dignity, consequently human rights. I’m thinking of the idea of peace and the idea of reconciliation. By focusing on them than more on the differences, we should be able to use religion, in order to increase understanding so that it could be turned around from that religion is part of the conflict to that religion could be a part of the solution. Thank you.

And thank you Prime Minister for setting such a good example if keeping within the time limit. I now give the floor to Hassan Hanafi who is professor of Philosophy at Cairo University. Hassan[...]

Hassan Hanafi
Ladies and gentlemen, we did not come here to condemn, but to try to understand. We did not come here to accuse a culture or another, but to change the very roots of violence in history. We are not asking for security measures, because security will never solve the issue, but to change really, and to uproot violence from our hearts and our society. It is not linked to Islam: there’s a title called “Islamic terrorism” which is absolutely wrong. We cannot say “Christian terrorism” concerning the Irish issue, or “Buddhist” or “American terrorism” concerning the new “American Empire” nowadays.

Religion in underdeveloped and developing countries plays a role of culture, or of mass culture as the role of political ideologies does in Western cultures. Sometimes externally people are invaded and sometimes what we call terrorism is a legitimate resistance. Sometimes people live under dictatorship; Islamic legal movements are not legalized although they have the majority of the masses behind them. But they are not legal. Maybe they are practicing violence to legalize themselves. And at the same time they are practicing violence to liberate themselves.

Who created Osama bin Laden? It was America in order to fight the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Who supported the most of the dictatorial regimes in our area? It was U.S.A; these regimes are very beneficial to implement American policy and so on. Just to remind you that everyone would refer to “terrorism” if it were committed by the individual. What about “State terrorism”? Everyone is referring to terrorism as the visible one. What about the “invisible terrorism”? When I’m not the owner of my own decisions. Everyone is referring to terrorism as a reaction. But where is terrorism as an action which causes a reaction? Aren’t we all the time blaming the victims?

Now, there are some injustices in the Middle East. There is at the same time an imbalance of power in the Middle East. There is the occupation of Palestine, the invasions of Iraq, Afghanistan, of Chechnya, Kashmir. What you call “suicide bombs” is something related to the imbalance of power. When a partner has all the weapons and the other partner has nothing, except his life to offer, then he will sacrifice his life.

Finally, I hope that our Europeans don’t see Islam in Europe, the second religion in Europe, as a subtraction, but as an addition. Immigration, Muslim immigration, Arab immigration is following the international law of the division of labor, like the immigration from Eastern Europe, like the immigration of Asians to the Gulf and so on. Why should we consider Europe as an island, monolithic? Where is European pluralism? Europe was never a closed area, from Greece to Rome coming to the Arab world. From the Arab world coming to Andalusia and Europe through Toledo, Cordoba, Granada and Sevilla. From modern times again to the Arab world in the times of the Arab renaissance. And maybe vice-versa now Islam is coming to Europe to solve the failure of nervousness which some European philosophers would feel: Spingler, Doinby, Russell, Hesse, Schiller, Berksen; all of them would lament the crisis of values in Europe. Maybe Islam can give something related to the complete rejection of racism based on color. Maybe Europe needs a new blood which may come Islam. Why should Europe feel that Islam would threaten, would alienate European identity, when we lived together in Andalusia? Why can’t Europe and the Mediterranean be a new Andalusia? Thank you.

Thank you, Hassan. And Ben Mollov now, who is lecturer in conflict studies, social studies at Bar-Ilan University in Israel.

Ben Mollov
Thank you, good morning to you all.

I would like to take the Prime Minister’s comments as a point of departure, in terms of religion as an element that can lead to escalation of conflicts, and at the same time religion that we hold a challenge for to lead as a possibility peace building, transformation etc. and apply it specifically to the situation in the Middle East. I’m from Israel. I’m a lecturer at Bar-Ilan University, which is a religiously oriented university, combining tradition with modernity.

First of all, I encourage my students to look at the Arab-Israeli conflict very much as a culturally rooted phenomenon. I think something which is very useful today in social sciences in the whole area of narrative. We’re really, all of us, a story in development, a story in progress, and I think we can look at the conflict that we have in the Middle East, which of course has implications for the issue of extremism and terror and animosity, as expressions of two national movements that are essentially rooted in culture, but with religion as a basic layer.

Two national movements, the Arab and the Jewish, attempting to protest conditions, approximately a century ago: material conditions, spiritual conditions, economic conditions, and say “why can’t we have things the way they once were?” and recalling a heroic period they once had, rooted in a religious past: in the Arab case, in my reading of it, the heroic period of the Great Arab State, the great Arab civilization from the 7th to 10th Centuries; in the Jewish case, returning to the model of the Bible and saying “why can’t we return to a period of pride, of dignity etc.” And we basically ended up in a situation of head-on clash which we can trace then with political developments based on the structure of these cultural issues which are ultimately rooted on the religion.

How can we change that direction of conflict, that direct confrontation? I would offer a micro example and then a larger macro suggestion. My work in conflict resolution, specifically on the ground, has involved work between Israeli and Palestinian students, more in the period of the mid-1990’s to early 2000, for obvious reasons. But they involve my students from Bar-Ilan University and Palestinian students from Hebron, sectors of religious students who were involved in a project for a number of years that began to develop in positive intensity and warmth, and you could say “what could bring these two groups together in a positive fashion - the students from Hebron and the students from Bar-Ilan, seemingly the sectors, and the publics that would be most resilient to change? Actually religion itself. And both sides in the process of dialogue were able to find commonalties in the religious culture of each other – Islam and Judaism. I think both groups began to discover that there were no two religions in the world, certainly in the great monotheistic religions that are as similar to each other in structure and in practices as Islam and Judaism. And that was a basic element in discovering and from that basic element of developing a human commonality where every interaction is not about the immediate conflict and who is to blame for what happened yesterday, but seeing something in the other that is now familiar something that we can each respect and identify with coming then to the deeper issues, for instance of what we’re all doing here.

I think in the Arab narrative, the very existence of Zionism and the establishment of the State of Israel is viewed as an injustice, without understanding, I think, the basis of the Jewish connection to the land of Israel is rooted in religion. You can easily come to that judgment based on the progression of history throughout the 20th century. But by beginning religion as a point of contact in a positive way, then we come, step by step to a deeper understanding of the narrative where each side is coming from.

In my own experience, in this process lasting a number of years, I’ve certainly come to understand and appreciate a greater empathy for the Arab narrative, where the Arabs are coming from in this experience, the ideal of course is a point of transcendent contact and this is where I would talk about it in terms of conflict resolution, conflict transformation, and how ultimately we can come to a win-win situation.

Take for example the whole area of the Temple Mount, a whole sensitive area in which reportedly the talks of Camp David reached a crisis over. If we approach that, and I’m not discussing the modalities but certainly in a thoughtful, sensitive, and responsible way, with a religious input to that, then both sides can hopefully begin to appreciate the connection of the other to the area. Both sides established their connection to that area, originally, in absence of the other: the Jews in the period before Islam developed as a historic force; the Arab-Islamic Empire during the time that the Jews were not a potent force in history either, and the question is - what can be a point of transcendent contact? - And here we deal with your thoughts, Mr. Prime Minister, of transformation, of emphasizing so that the software of religion, elements of inclusiveness rather than exclusivity. We all have texts in our religions that deal with one or the other, and how in terms of a considered effort in terms of a cultural, spiritual baggage along with the political processes, that religion can indeed be used as a force to moderate and lead us to a better path.

Thank you. Now the thought is to open the floor and to give you an opportunity we’ll take five, ten minutes in case there are any particular questions you’d like to ask or comments, so that we try and have, as I said, as interactive as possible.

If I may pick up a few of the points that might help our discussion now: Religion is important in life, it’s not just a surrogate for other causes that came across very strongly. There are overlaps between faith and politics, political action. The misuse of religion, either intentionally or unintentionally, has been raised, and in particular the problem of the misinterpretation of foundational texts or scriptures. The issue of religious activists or terrorists being imbedded in their faith communities also was touched upon. We also heard how a religion isn’t ever an isolated cause; it frequently overlaps or interplays with grievance. And we’ve heard about how religion can be a positive force that can help to transform a conflict situation, as indeed it can also entrench people in their conflicts. I would now like to open the question to the floor.

Delegate from the floor
Mr. Hanafi, you mentioned the difference between “invisible” and “visible” terrorism, as well as the difference between state terrorism and individual terrorism. For you, is there a difference in the definition of terrorism as well as both moral judgment in what September 11th was, which doesn’t differentiate between guilty and innocent, and lets say what Israel does or the American bomb over Hiroshima did which also meant to create fear etc? What is the difference for you, if there is one?

Hassan Hanafi
Surely we can analyze the phenomenon of violence on the moral level, and surely the answer is very clear. Yes, we condemn any kind of violence once civilians are at stake. But this is what everybody is doing. But I’m trying to analyze things beyond morality in order to know the roots of this. Moral judgment is an easy self-salvation but we need to take to roots of violence. For instance, much literature which is read in the West, and also read in France, Nietzsche, Gabunski, Hegel even; there is a huge amount of literature in Western philosophy justifying terrorism. Hegel made terrorism a part of activity in history. That’s what happened in Madrid one year ago helped withdrawing the Spanish troops from Iraq and so on. This is Hegel’s analysis. Then we want beyond morality to take the roots of terrorism in order to change the phenomenon. It’s not enough to condemn it, even on moral levels, but in all religions life is sacred.

Delegate from the floor
Religion is not just an important part of life it is the life we live through. Nobody can live on this life without having a religion, even he calls himself or she calls herself non-religious. To choose non-religion, it’s a way of life, which is religion. I believe strongly that religion is the way of life you choose, whether it be from the three monotheistic religions or it can be a religion we make ourselves like others haven’t. So we can’t live on this planet without having a belief, without having a religion, even if we make this one ourselves. There’s no harm Mr. Mollov in learning from our history, simply because our history just teaches us the tolerance to live together. We lived together in Andalusia, Jews, Christians and Muslims; we lived together in Palestine as Jews, Christians and Muslims, in Egypt and all these areas. And in this period of time there was a lot of what you call now integration and inclusion. It has been practiced for hundreds and hundreds of years. Only a few extremist views, which came recently have actually misrepresented religion.

Delegate from the floor
I was very glad to hear the quote “other terrorism” because yesterday I think it was not said that there is a terrorism of state and I think you could quote it “new-born terrorism”. I think there is terrorism when a group or a state takes in its hand the legitimate force. In Islam it’s the Akidan dunya, the religious and civil authority, in our society it’s in the law. Now it’s interesting to look at the problem where religion is needed as another determination. For instance, I’m thinking of Ireland, and in Ireland, both are really thinking that they are defending their religion. And that’s a problem of culture, don’t you think? In Islam and Christianity, in any religion, it should be studied.


Delegate from the floor
My name is Syed Riza. I’m the chief negotiator for the Palestinians. I just want to say –please, not in my name, not in my name- religion, religious extremism, I’ve heard Mr. Hanafi, Mr. Mollov. Palestinian questions, Palestinian injustices. Ben Mollov, we have recognized you to survive and live in peace at 78 percent of historic Palestine. We accepted to establish a State next to you in the remaining 22 percent of the land. What’s religion? What is the religious aspect of it now? Why the settlements? Why the walls? Why can’t we reconcile? And Dr Hanafi, I appreciate what you said. I know that I’m a Muslim that’s disgusted by the term Islamic terrorism. But at the same time I think as Muslims and Arabs, I think it’s a disgrace for us to try to justify occurrences, such as the horrifying terrorist attacks in Washington and New York or in Madrid, or anywhere! Not in my name. Bin Laden was hiding in Afghanistan as a mujahadeen for 20 years. He never used the word ‘Palestine’. It’s an attraction for Muslims to use the word ‘Palestine’. Not in the name of Palestinians, not in the name of my just cause. We’re trying to reconcile the differences with the Israelis through a meaningful peace process. Please! Let the religion be part of the reconciliation. As a Muslim I know that my religious teachings to me is always to reconcile through peaceful means. Thank you.

Delegate from the floor
[...] from Lancaster University. I am a sociologist of religion and I just want to throw this one out to you to consider ant to think about.

In talking about using the word ‘religious extremism’, I presume the opposite would be something like ‘religious moderation’, which everybody is talking about in a way. Can I just throw out the problem, as a sociologist of religion, that the findings have been that as more religious traditions become moderate and tend towards tolerance, I’ll give examples such as the Church of England and so on, the more they seem to lose followers. And so much people on the ground, people I’ve interviewed have said that they want things like miracles. They want moral certainties. They want affirmations of truth: of a particular type of truth. That is a problem in terms of the whole discussion about religious tolerance and religious extremism.

Good point. Now, I’m returning to the panelists. We still have four more presentations and then we’ll open the floor again for further comment and discussion. Radwan, may I ask you to start?

Radwan A. Masmoudi
My name is Radwan Masmoudi and I am president of the Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy. I wanted to try to quickly speak about the root causes of religious extremism in the Muslim world. And based on the advice of Professor Hanafi. I won’t use the word ‘Islamic extremism’. I think its important to understand that a certain Islam does not have a monopoly over extremism but every religion has had its share of extremism. But it’s also important to understand what are the root causes of extremism in the Muslim world.

As we know Islam strongly emphasizes the concepts of justice, of freedom, of dignity for human beings. If you read the Koran, these concepts, like justice for example, is mentioned over 300 times, in a universal aspect, it’s not only for Muslims, it’s for any human being. And the example of tolerance in the Muslim world, in the Muslim history is really abundant; there are many, many cases of Islamic tolerance.

However today in the 21st Century the Arab world is in crisis. And it’s understandable that in times of crisis people turn to religion. This is also not an Islamic phenomenon. It’s everywhere. It’s a human phenomenon. When people are in crisis they turn to God. This happened in Eastern Europe, it happened in Latin America, it happened in many parts of the world. When people are in crisis they turn to religion. But if you look at the Arab world in general, but more specifically if you look at the Muslim world, there is no question, we have a huge crisis in terms of poverty, in terms of unemployment, in terms of corruption. So that’s my first point.

My second point is: in the Arab world, and more generally in the Muslim world, regimes have basically blocked all avenues for expression, contestation or peaceful opposition to the governments. And the mosques, and the religion have become the only avenue for people to express their opinions or have discussions about their roles as human being or as citizens as to how to get out of this crisis. So lack of freedom, and lack of democracy is, in my opinion, a major reason for this rise in extremism.

The third point is that the intellectual elites in the Arab world have tended to be extremely secular and have not understood or have misunderstood the importance of religion in society. They have ignored religion and therefore I believe they have left the entire field of religion and religious interpretation to those who are on the fringes and to those who are probably less educated to interpret religion for the rest of the Muslim community.

The fourth point, and it’s also related to the problem of secularism, is that the Arab rulers and the Arab regimes are not only very oppressive, as I mentioned before, but they are also secular, from Nasser, to Saddam Hussein, to Asset. It’s important to keep in mind that at least 80 to 90 percent of the rulers in the last 50 years in the Arab world have been very, very secular, and in fact, most of them have been anti-religious. So in the Arab world, oppression and secularism became associated with each other. People in the Arab world understand secularism to be an oppressive idea not a tolerant idea. And also secularism became understood as anti-religious and not a-religious, not only separation of Church and State, but anti-religious, against religion.

The fifth point that I think is important to understand is the period of stagnation that we have witnessed in the Muslim world in the last 400 to 500 years whereas Islam was the driving and the main civilization on earth for 8 or 9 centuries prior to that. For the last 400 or 500 years Islam and the Muslim civilization has stagnated.

And that brings me to the point of the importance of Ishjihad, or reasoning and interpretation of the text, which allowed Islam and Muslim civilization to be flexible and to adjust and adapt to the changing conditions and to learn from the people of other civilizations in the first 900 years. That door, the door of Ishjihad was officially closed about 400 or 500 years ago, and Islam became rigid, and certain interpretations made 1000 years ago were declared […]

You see, Muslims are killed and persecuted everywhere. I’m going to mention a few countries here because I don’t have time to describe what happened in those countries: from Palestine to Iraq to Afghanistan. And I’m not only talking about the last year or two, I’m talking about since the mid-80’s. Chechnya, Kashmir, Algeria, Afghanistan, Bosnia, Kosovo, Muslims, in China, in the Philippines. And you’ll also see that the West has very good relations with these oppressive, corrupt regimes, and does not seem to care about the suffering of Muslims in all these countries. In Bosnia 250,000 people were killed, simply because they were Muslim. This happened 10 years ago, in the heart of Europe, and we were all watching it on TV for 4 years.

So it is natural for Muslims to be angry. I’m a Muslim and whenever I travel I see a lot of anger, and I myself am angry. It’s a natural feeling. I always say that if you are Muslim and you are not angry today at what is happening in the Muslim world then there is something wrong with you. But the challenge for all of us is to challenge that anger towards constructive things, toward hopeful and useful things. When you’re angry you tend to react in illogical or unhelpful manners. So it’s important for Muslims to control their anger and to channel it into positive methods, and peaceful methods. And this solution is democracy and Ishjihad. Thank you very much.

Feisel Abdul Rauf
I’d like to begin by invoking the name of the One God, the God of Abraham, Ishmael, Isaac and Jacob, the God of Moses and Aaron, the God of John the Baptist and Jesus Christ, and the God of Mohammed. Peace and blessing be upon all of these noble messengers.

I’d like to begin by responding to Syed Riza’s point of ‘not in my name’. Right after 9/11 in the United States that was very much the message and has continued to be the message that we have tried to portray and explain and to mention the points that were previously indicated by my colleagues here about the etiology of much of these conflicts. I was a month after the 9/11 attacks asked by a journalist who said “Imam Faisal, I can understand the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, but what I do not yet understand is why is it Hezbollah, why is it Hamas, why is it Jamaislaya, why is it Ashgar Mohammed? Why is it that the political liberation movements in the Muslim world very often utilise the language and the vocabulary of religion? And until you can explain to us this nexus, it is hard for us, in the non-Muslim world, to really wrap our heads, to use an American colloquialism, around the issue of this separation between religion and violence, and religion and politics.”

And is from this vantage point that we have to look at the ‘meta’ questions, the underlying questions, the large questions. And I certainly agree that if religion is viewed as a source of the problem, the solution does not lie in banishing religion from the boardrooms of political power and society, but rather to invite it to create the solution. And as one pointed out, that is largely the reason that in the Muslim world there has been this fundamental existential differentiation between the role of religion in politics and their nexus or connection point and how it is viewed, particularly in Europe, although less so in America.

In my analysis of conflicts and how conflicts are generated, I’ve observed that conflicts are generally fermented or generated by competing claims for an asset (two parties who believe they have an equal claim to the particular asset). And assets fall into 3 major categories: Competing claims to power, which translates to the political arena; claims to economic assets, land, oil, water, or whatever it might be (and when the competing claim gets tagged on a different identity - be it religion, be it tribal like in Rwanda, between the Hutus and Tutsis, be it like in the Sudan, be it like in Palestine, be it like in Belfast, if its religious, if its racial, if its ethnic, if its gender - it creates a conflict around that particular identity as the differentiating and identifying aspect of the conflict); and the third source, the most complex source, is different sort of competing claim on the existential world view. And here is where the fundamental difference between the Islamic world view and the European secular world view, which was imposed, as was pointed out, on much of the Muslim world in a rather aggressive and militant fashion, which resulted in what you might call the reaction of the religious voices after the mid-20th century in much of the Muslim world.

The Islamic [world view] shares with the Judeo-Christian world view of the two fundamental major Commandments: to love the Lord our God with our hearts, our souls, our minds, our physical strength; and to love our fellow human beings as you do ourselves, which from the contemplative tradition in all of these religions, really is the manifestation in two dimensions of one Commandment, which could be phrased, in modern times, as: to love God, and all 6 billion of his images.

What the Islamic worldview feels has happened is that the secular existential worldview of Europe is that these two commandments have been de-linked. Whereas in the Islamic worldview, we feel that we cannot fulfill the first Commandment completely without fulfilling it in the second dimension. And as the solutional algorhythm needs to examine the underlying questions that have fueled conflicts in the name of religion and needs to address the very human needs, both in the political and economic dimensions as well as in the existential world view dimensions.

And thus I conclude, that the unfinished business of the Muslim world is how to develop what I might call an Islamic version of democratic capitalism. And the unfinished business in the Western world is how to incorporate religion into society, into how we define the common good of a universal social contract.

Brian Glyn Williams
Thank you very much. Most of my colleagues on this table have made the points that I would have made, so may I just place this in somewhat of a historical context, as a practitioner rather than as an academic? History, as we know, has been shaped by many forces, ideals, religions, but in the end it’s been shaped by power. The phenomenon of terrorism that we face know is an outcome of disintegration and end of empires, particularly over the last century -the Ottoman Empire, as well as the Western empires, Austro-Hungarian, French, the British. And these resulted in a total imbalance of power. Obviously, the colonial powers had dominated – oppressed, repressed, ruled. And now you had moved into the dark phase of the struggle for independence, and in this imbalance of power is where terrorism emerged. Whether in Malaysia, in Kenya, wherever, there was an independence struggle. It was mostly over territory, it was also in Palestine, the acquisition of territory, it was mostly over territory, so let us say that it was called political terrorism.

That has now mutated into what faces us, and frightens us, which is called religious terrorism. We all know that all religions can be exploited by extremists for justifying violence. But at the same time what is in the minds of people, especially in Europe and North America is what is broadly referred to “Islamic terrorism”. There is a reason for this: 11th of September 11th of March - horrifying days, horrifying attacks - work conducted by Muslims. There was no non-Muslim involved in those two attacks so this fear of “Islamic terrorism” is understandable, especially in the West.

And that has led to a great deal of study of Islam, the Koran, and so on, and a great deal of unknown terminology has now become familiar to Western ears including the concept, obviously, of Jihad. And you can read everyday about Jihad. We all know about greater Jihad, the struggle of the individual, and about the lesser Jihad, which is against oppression and injustice. The panel here that looked at the political causes of terrorism, and I’m just quoting from their summary: “terrorism is rooted in political discontent.” That can also be termed as political rage when it reaches the level of terrorism.

And how does that discontent, or rage occur? Obviously from injustice –real, perceived, believed– but injustice, whether in Peru, whether in Kashmir, whether in Sri Lanka or whether in Palestine. Now, we all agree that no cause can justify terrorism, but the question is: can the phenomenon of terrorism be ignored? It cannot. It has to be dealt with. You deal with the symptoms, or the roots. As far as “Islamic terrorism” is concerned -and one has to oversimplify in three minutes, or five minutes– the main root, without any doubt, certainly in my mind, is Palestine. That is a cause which spreads anger in all Muslim countries –Kashmir is a local conflict- but Palestine is, in the minds of Muslims societies, all over the world. Of course, that’s equated with suicide bombings and so on, but it’s a vicious cycle of repression, asymmetrical warfare which reaches a level of suicide bombings, counter repression, and of course the media creates perceptions, demonisations which reaches into - excuse the cliché - hearts and minds on both sides.

What does this arise from? It arises from the real political and practical phenomenon of the very prolonged occupation. After World War II, Japan and Germany were occupied by the allied powers for about 5 years with the declared intention of restoring sovereignty to Germany and Japan after their political systems were changed. But in Palestine, it is an occupation, a harsh, repressive occupation, which has lasted 40 years, with the declared and real intention of annexation or dismemberment.

So again, in oversimplification, unless this root cause is addressed there will be no diminishing of the receptiveness and supportiveness in Muslim societies for extreme violence, including suicide bombings, unfortunately. It is only this step that can start the process of defusing the confrontation and hostility, which has now arisen between the Western world and the Islamic world. Thank you.

I’m going to ask William Bentley, who is the General Secretary of the World Conference of Religion and Peace to respond to the comments you’ve heard so far before further debate.

(Continued in: Religion and Religious Extremism, part 2).


General view of the session on "Religion and religious extremism". (Photo: Club the Madrid)
On the left Oliver McTernan, moderator of the session on 'Religion and religious extremism'. Besides him, Syed Iqbal Riza, high executive of United Nations (Photo: Club de Madrid)
With the collaboration ofSafe Democracy Foundation
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