Terrorism Has No Religion

I’ve been sadly and silently following developments in Manchester after the tragic suicide bombing. Today I saw an interview with Saima Alvi, Vice-Chair of the British Muslim Heritage Centre. She made the point — calmly and eloquently — that terrorism has no religion.

This reminded me of Barack Obama, who knew the power of words and steadfastly refused to connect the words “terrorism” and “Islam.” Terrorists have nothing to do with Islam; they merely appropriate words and symbols from that religion of peace in order to justify their heinous acts.

Mrs. Alvi was interviewed by Sky News in the bright sunshine of St. Ann’s Square on May 25. She went on to talk about her 16-year-old daughter. She said her daughter wears a hijab (head scarf), and when her daughter came home yesterday she said everyone had been staring at her. She asked, “Why were they staring at me, Mummy?” Mrs. Alvi explained that her daughter is naïve and didn’t understand how the suicide bombing had increased tensions. “But what’s that got to do with me?” her daughter asked, genuinely puzzled.

There’s a point of insight here. To me (a white, non-Muslim American), a person who would blow up dozens of innocent strangers, many of them children, is a different species — almost non-human. I find it incomprehensible. So do most British Muslims. Like the 16-year-old girl being stared at because she wears a head scarf, most British Muslims consider terrorists to be a different species having nothing to do with them. Terrorists disguise themselves as Muslims, but they are not, for they have no regard for human life.

I wish it were that simple. The concept of radicalisation complicates matters. Terrorist ideology tries to take the kernel of something noble in human nature and twist it to the bad.

As a student of world religion, I would say that at the core of Islam is strong faith and ecstatic love for Allah and his prophet Muhammad, plus a rich culture and set of ethical guidelines. Terrorist ideology corrupts these things by mixing in an element of violent fanaticism.

I understand the concept behind the British government’s Prevent programme. I can also see its flaws. Some people who implement Prevent don’t really understand the nature of religious experience in general, nor Islam in particular. They tend to view a burgeoning interest in religion as something dangerous, a symptom of radicalisation.

In truth, it’s quite natural that many young people (including Muslims) will have conversion experiences which make them more religious, deeply religious. That in itself is a good thing, not bad. What’s needed is a clearer understanding that genuine religious feeling can be corrupted by bad ideas.

I read the full debate on Prevent from 01 February 2017 in the House of Commons, which shows a surprising degree of accord among both Conservative and Labour MPs that the programme leads to alienation and mistrust. The hope is that some less draconian, less Big Brother-ish means can be found to address extremist influence, without imposing a statutory duty on teachers and other professionals to inform on children who show vague signs of what is subjectively perceived as radicalisation.

A programme like Prevent (or something better) will meet with greater acceptance if it can develop further insight into the nature of religious experience, and the type of conversion experiences which many young Muslims are bound to have. The goal should be to support the authentic practice of strong religious faith, but to separate out (through critical discussion) the bad ideas which terrorists bring in. This is a more subtle approach which does not suspect or denigrate Muslim religion, but which tries to counter the spread of bad ideas which are not at their core Muslim religious ideas, but merely terrorist political ideas.

Terrorism is constantly in the news — on loop both literally and figuratively — so it cannot help being discussed. By all means outlaw terrorism, but not discussion of it. In the aforementioned debate, Hon. Lucy Allan said:

The Government naturally have a duty to protect the public, and they are seeking to discharge that duty through the Prevent strategy. We all want to see extremism tackled, and the intention of Prevent is, in theory, to stop young people being drawn into terrorism and to protect them from extremist views that might render them more susceptible to radicalisation. We get into more difficult territory, however, when we start to tackle belief, ideas and the expression of political and religious views. The whole issue then becomes a great deal more complicated. We could find ourselves in a situation in which the Government decide which views are too extreme and debate can be shut down, so that issues that are better discussed and challenged openly are driven underground.

That is all before anyone has even done anything. Prevent is operating in a pre-crime space, which sounds positively Orwellian. That is at the heart of some of the concerns being expressed about the Prevent duty. Our schools need to be places where young people can discuss any issue at all and develop the ability to see extremist ideologies for what they are. We need to help young people develop the resilience to challenge those ideologies, and if we expose them to only the views that the Government find acceptable, we deny them the opportunity to challenge alternative views and fail to equip them with the ability to think critically and learn how to exercise judgment.

Of the many problems with Prevent, I would like to focus on one in particular: that strong religious faith may be mistaken for (or conflated with) “pre-radicalisation” or “pre-crime.”

As I will shortly discuss, it is not uncommon for a young person to have a conversion experience which takes the form of a personal encounter with a loving God. No matter what their religious background (and this also happens to those raised as atheists), such an experience is certainly to be valued and treasured. It is often an ecstatic experience.

I think that genuine spiritual ecstasy can have a radicalising effect on young minds, if it is not accompanied by wisdom in philosophy. Peace Studies should be part of Prevent or similar programmes. Peace Studies is a universal course of study which can help anyone — whether Muslim, Christian, agnostic, or what-have-you — to live in peace and harmony with his or her neighbours, and with the world at large. This is what God wants of us, for all of us to live in peace. Most secular thinkers also favour peace.

Wars are a dreadful abomination and corruption. They should be eliminated, and one day they will be eliminated. But if human nature has not yet been perfected to the extent that it can completely eliminate wars, then let the wars be confined to conflict between combatants in war zones. To intentionally target civilian non-combatants — whether this is done by terrorist groups or government forces — is utterly wrong.

My point to those fulfilling statutory duties under Prevent is this: Don’t look on strong religious faith as something bad or dangerous. Look on it as something which, for many young people, is a natural process of awakening which may manifest as conversion, or as intensification of a faith which had previously lain dormant. (See this article in the Guardian for more about religious conversion via psychologist William James.)

One possible scenario for a Muslim youth is that he or she will grow up wanting to be as much like other (non-Muslim) children as possible. So, he or she may not place much emphasis on faith. But at some point in young adulthood, he/she may undergo conversion to a more active form of faith, including regular prayer, religious garb, and more meticulous observance of dietary restrictions. These changes may be precipitated or intensified by a religious experience of the type catalogued by William James — the kind of religious experience which is a common thread among many different religions. At the core of this experience may be awareness of a personal, loving God, and a sense of ecstatic union.

Faith is not the problem, religion is not the problem, ecstatic love for Allah is not the problem; the problem comes when young people whose faith is not yet mature and tempered by wisdom in philosophy or Peace Studies are told by terrorist recruiters that their faith justifies the killing of people of a different faith, or no faith at all.

I’m not wild about the government telling people how to think about religion; but to the extent this is done, it should at least be based on a more subtle understanding. I realize there are bound to be problems when government tries to distinguish between “authentic” religious ideas and terrorist political ideas. But once government has gotten into that messy business, it needs all the help it can get to sort the tangle.

In the same debate in which Hon. Lucy Allan voiced incisive criticism of Prevent, Hon. Byron Davies stuck up for the programme:

The importance of the Prevent strategy was made clear in the other place in 2016. I draw attention to Channel, which is one part of the broader Prevent agenda. It is an intensive, one-to-one mentoring programme that challenges violent views through the de-programming and rewiring of an individual.

This view, in which the human being is seen as a kind of robot which — when it malfunctions by adopting ideas considered undesirable — is in need of de-programming or rewiring, reflects a certain secular, scientific, or technocratic mindset which is largely hostile to religion. Members of many minority sects have suffered at the hands of those who felt justified in trying to “de-program” them of religious beliefs which posed no danger, and which were sincerely arrived at by the practitioners themselves.

De-programming as a proposed solution to the problem of radicalisation evokes the Orwellian world of IngSoc, and is characteristic of what’s already problematic about Prevent in its present form. The same arguments used in the past to justify aggressive de-programming of non-violent religious minorities are now resurfacing to justify aspects of Prevent: namely, that the attacks on freedom of thought and freedom of belief are justified under the broad rubric of “safeguarding the vulnerable” — that is, a “duty of care” argument.

Duty of care is clear when a school teacher knows that a child is being beaten or sexually abused, or is becoming addicted to heroin; it is far less clear when a child is merely suspected of having become more deeply religious — which in some cases is all that’s happened.

If the teacher’s own beliefs are Christian or Secular Humanist, the teacher may read into a child’s newfound or intensified love for Islam something sinister and dangerous which is not actually present. While it’s true that some terrorists claim to be motivated by religion, most religious practitioners — even those of deep faith and orthodox practice — are not terrorists. It is therefore inappropriate (to say the least) to treat people whose only “crime” is deep religious faith as if they were terrorists-in-training.

Some may say that since I am not Muslim, it is the height of folly for me to weigh in on these matters. But as a student of peace and a person of faith, I feel it’s my duty to share what I’ve learned in life. I am not a government bureaucrat or any kind of authority figure; I’m simply sharing my personal view in a time of trouble. And my view is this: Love God, be passionate in your love of God, be ecstatic in your love of God, be certain in your faith; but don’t let anyone tell you that God wants you to kill or maim other human beings in the name of faith; for this is a terrible corruption and not at all what God wants of us. No one is more anti-Muslim than the terrorist.

There’s a famous novel by American writer J.D. Salinger called Catcher in the Rye. One passage goes: “The mark of the immature man is that he wants to die nobly for a cause, while the mark of the mature man is that he wants to live humbly for one.”

If your religious conversion or spiritual awakening is genuine, lasting, and true, then it should make you want to live humbly for a cause, not die blowing up your fellow human beings. You can have strong, ecstatic faith, yet also balance that with a mature understanding, so that you recognize the presence of God in all humanity and would never consider killing others of a different faith, nor would you try by force to convert them to your own beliefs. This principle applies not just to Muslims, but also to would be Crusaders.

The goal of programmes like Prevent should never be to discourage strong faith or religious study, but to help young people temper their faith with wisdom, tolerance, and ideals of peace. I feel that wisdom, tolerance, and ideals of peace are fully consistent with Islam. So there need be no conflict provided we view things in a proper perspective. We need to develop the insight that faith is not bad, religion is not bad, only the problem comes when people bring in bad ideas, mixing them with the good.

You can have the most delicious sweetmeats which are absolutely delightful and made from the purest ingredients — but if someone mixes in arsenic then what was good becomes completely bad and poisonous. Pure love of God is good, but if someone mixes in the idea that out of devotion to God we have to kill dozens, or hundreds, or thousands of people, then this kind of philosophy is Satan’s philosophy, not God’s philosophy.

I don’t claim to have the answer. Solutions to society’s problems will come from many different quarters. As a sympathetic observer, I do think it’s possible for someone to be British to the core, Muslim to the core, deeply religious, yet 100% against terrorism. For some people, this is the ideal.

There are also geopolitical causes of terrorism, as well as problems with our definitions of terrorism. Some people look at the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and feel that Western nations are the terrorists, dropping bombs on innocent civilians. So we can say there is a vicious cycle: War leads to terrorism and terrorism leads to war.

There’s an important distinction between causation and justification. Terrorism is never justified. But in looking for the root causes of domestic terrorism, we are not wrong to see foreign wars as an aggravating factor. This fact should not become a political football or part of the emotional “blame game.” Nor does this fact automatically lead to the conclusion that Western nations should play no role whatsoever in overseas conflicts. But Western nations must tread carefully, lest they be drawn into a conflict which they cannot solve, and where their use of military force only adds to senseless loss of life, or leads to abuses such as torture.

The problems of war and terrorism are intractable; that’s why we need Peace Studies to help us find long-term solutions to the cycle of violence. So much effort goes into planning for war, budgeting for war, gearing up for war, studying for war. If we put even half as much effort into Peace Studies, gradually we could sow the seeds of peace, and eventually these seeds would germinate.

Peace is not easy to arrive at. This is exactly why the field of Peace Studies has been developed. In order to achieve something difficult, we have to study the problem and begin visualizing the means by which we can solve it. If we just look quickly and say “Peace is too difficult, let us return to war” then we can never solve the problem. So let us devote ample resources to the problem of achieving peace, just as we have already devoted massive resources to the continued waging of war. If we never develop the vision and imagination needed to achieve peace, then we will continue to suffer the twin tragedies of war and terrorism.

Returning to the topic of Prevent: Any insights into the Muslim religious experience will be fairly useless without a human connection based on honesty and trust. Where government programmes have had success, it’s probably due to individuals who made that human connection and were able to act as teachers, mentors, or positive role models. Where government bureaucrats and behavioural psychologists devise leaflets to be covertly directed at the Muslim population en masse, I doubt this has a good effect.

The spirit in which a thing is done makes all the difference. Broadly speaking, counter-terrorism comes under the heading of social control. The notion of fighting terrorism by practising behaviour modification on British Muslims, pressuring them to conform to mainstream views, seems ill-fated because it smacks of inauthenticity, fails to address individual concerns, and may lack an underlying sense of warmth and caring. At its worst, the subtle message of Prevent is “Tone it down or be singled out for counselling” — but such counselling may be culturally insensitive and lead to further alienation.

According to Frances Webber, Vice-Chair of the Institute of Race Relations, “The government’s counter-radicalisation policy is trying to channel thought, speech and ideas into a fairly narrow concept of what’s acceptable, and everything else is becoming potentially ‘pre-criminal’.”

Insight, compassion, and caring need to be practised on an individual level to effect positive change. There must be concern for the person, rather than the desired social control outcome, e.g. “I’m here to make sure you don’t become a terrorist.” I think approaching people with that thinly veiled social control agenda is an instant turn-off. But if you’re a good teacher, mentor, role model, or simply friend, you can help someone make good choices — not by manipulating them, but by just being there for them — showing them that Britain is a beautiful place to be a Muslim, and it doesn’t involve hating anyone or bombing anything.

Michael Howard

The views expressed are my own, and do not represent any other person or organization.


Sidebar: Heritage Radio AM – Manchester

While researching this article, I checked out the BMHC website and learned that they also run a radio station. I was really curious what a Muslim radio station in Manchester would sound like. I only listened for about an hour, but found it quite interesting:

http://tunein.com/radio/Heritage-Radio-AM-s272597/

As a student of world religion and world music, I enjoyed the mix of music, prayers, and adverts. (“Remember, if it’s plumbing, it will be available at Cheetham Plumbing!”)

* * *

The ACLU and Religious Freedom, Part 1

The ACLU has often fought for the rights of minority adherents, including Eastern spiritual seekers. BRAVO ACLU!

I might not be able to avoid criticising some attorneys for harassing minority faith groups. But my purpose here today is to praise the American Civil Liberties Union for often coming to the rescue of minority adherents.

aclu_logoThe backdrop for understanding these issues is this: America was built on noble ideals of religious freedom which are part of its very soul. Yet, religious freedom is not a given; it must often be won and re-won by successive generations of immigrant groups or new faith groups which spring up indigenously. Counterbalancing the ideals of religious freedom, we sometimes find that conformism, populism, and authoritarianism lead America in a quite different, less flattering direction.

In the mid-nineteenth century, conformism meant that Catholics were harassed for worshipping differently than Protestants. Populism meant that the public’s imagination was inflamed by hate material vilifying Catholics, such as The Awful Disclosures of Maria Monk. This genre has sometimes been called Protestant pornography, since under the guise of reading about the allegedly depraved life led by Catholic nuns, a good deal of material appealing to prurient interest might be shoehorned in. (See The Oxford Companion To United States History, which states that the wave of Catholic immigration after 1820 “provided a large, visible enemy and intensified fears for American institutions and values. These anxieties inspired vicious anti-Catholic propaganda with pornographic overtones[.]”)

The same technique is used today by anti-cultists. The press isn’t usually too interested in the ideological quibbles anti-cultists have with minority faith groups; but if anti-cultists can manage to work in a sex angle, they may get the press to bite. This technique has been used by cynical opportunists like Elizabeth Kracht, who got “her” author Edwin Lyngar to plant a fake story with a sex angle in Salon. (Do journalists, literary agents, and editors know no shame? Apparently not. Kimberley Cameron & Associates, your conscience is calling!)

While conformism and populism deal to some extent with attitudes, authoritarianism typically includes a strong element of social control, here meaning some sort of heavy-handed attack on spiritual minorities which physically prevents them from practising their faith — church-burning being a prime example. Although we like to think of church-burning as belonging to the bad old days, at least one modern day attorney — Joe Kracht of the Lawton law firm of San Diego — has suggested that his former church “might as well be burned to the ground.”

Interestingly, he’s the brother of Elizabeth Kracht, leading me to wonder if there’s a dominant gene for intolerance, demagoguery, and hooliganism. 😉 It’s certainly odd that the Krachts (whose early upbringing was Catholic) resort to the same techniques used to harass Catholics in the nineteenth century. But from my general purpose I digress…

In the 1970s, as many people began exploring new religious movements (some of which were actually very old religious movements rooted in Hinduism or Buddhism), the familiar pattern from America’s darker side once again emerged: There was a strong nativist reaction to the new freedom in religious choice being expressed especially by young people. As John E. LeMoult recounts in his seminal “Deprogramming Members of Religious Sects,” published in the Fordham Law Review in 1978:

Pot-smoking, motorcycle-riding kids become serene quoters of Scripture or oriental tracts. Young people doff sweaters, sneakers, and blue jeans for ties, jackets, long skirts, or flowing saffron robes. Parents assume their once normal offspring have lost their minds, been “brainwashed.” But what has clearly happened is that the young people have undergone a thing called conversion.

To most Christian groups, conversion is a sudden infusion of grace into the soul, a new birth, accepting Jesus as one’s personal Savior. To eastern religions, it is a slower opening to the awareness of God within oneself, or the universal Self or Soul or Consciousness underlying all Being. It is achieved through chanting, yoga, or some form of meditation, and through the abandonment of the lower self (the ego with its base desires). By means of detachment, one attains a higher state of enlightenment and oneness with the essence of the world around him.

The conversion experience has been well described by [psychologist] William James in The Varieties of Religious Experience. He considers it a crystallizing of unconscious aims and wishes, previously “incubated” in “cold” centers of the mind, and suddenly becoming “hot” — brought to the surface by some crisis or experience and occupying the center of one’s thoughts and activities. James says this happens particularly to people in their teens, and that certain psychological and emotional changes are characteristic of all conversions. The fact that a dramatic change takes place in a converted youth is neither new nor sinister. It may simply be a case of arriving at a new identity, perhaps a “negative identity” with respect to the role offered as proper and desirable in one’s family.

One possible explanation for parents’ opposition to new religious sects may be the rejection of materialistic values by some of these sects. In this success and status oriented society, the true religion is often the acquisition of money, material goods, and power. Religions that eschew such goals attack the most dearly held values of the depression era generation and hit a raw nerve of hostility.

No one has proved that any religious sect which has been the target of deprogramming engages in physical restraint, abduction, or any other such practice. What is probably true of most such groups is that they offer warmth, friendship, authority, and a prescribed course of conduct laced with plenty of dogma. No doubt there are serious efforts to influence the thinking of the new adherent, but these are clearly not “brainwashing,” since the adherent is free to depart if he chooses.

The new, and I believe dangerous, element in this conflict between parents and children is “deprogramming.” Deprogrammers are people who, at the request of a parent or other close relative, will have a member of a religious sect seized, then hold him against his will and subject him to mental, emotional, and even physical pressures until he renounces his religious beliefs. Deprogrammers usually work for a fee, which may easily run as high as $25,000.

The deprogramming process begins with abduction. Often strong men muscle the subject into a car and take him to a place where he is cut off from everyone but his captors. He may be held against his will for upwards of three weeks. Frequently, however, the initial deprogramming only lasts a few days. The subject’s sleep is limited, and he is told that he will not be released until his beliefs meet his captors’ approval. Members of the deprogramming group, as well as members of the family, come into the room where the victim is being held and barrage him with questions and denunciations until he has recanted his newly found religious beliefs.

One would ask where deprogrammers get the authority to make these cosmic judgments about religious sects. What qualifications do they have to adjudge persons “brainwashed” or to apply dangerous methods of enforced behavior modification? Is this a group of psychiatrists, theologians, and social scientists? No. [Deprogrammer] Ted Patrick, for example, says he is a high school dropout. His only training appears to be a working knowledge of the Christian Bible. There is no evidence that he knows anything about eastern religions. Nor are there indications that other deprogrammers are qualified to make judgements about the mind, the soul, God, or the Unborn, Unoriginated, Unformed One.

Parents’ real concern is not with any allegedly illegal action on the part of various sects, but with the process by which new members are proselytized and then confirmed in their beliefs by leaders of the groups. That process is speech. Preaching, praying, chanting, teaching, and meditating all constitute practices heavily protected by the Constitution.

— John E. LeMoult, from “Deprogramming Members of Religious Sects” [footnotes omitted]

An article in The Guardian on religious conversion takes the help of both William James and Carl Jung:

[People who experience conversion] can show a sense of regeneration, or a reception of grace, or a gift of assurance. What distinguishes religious conversion from more humdrum experiences of change is depth. Human beings quite normally undergo alterations of character: we are one person at home, another at work, another again when we awake at four in the morning. But religious conversion, be it sudden or slow, results in a transformation that is stable and that causes a revolution in those other parts of our personality.

Jung thought that the unconscious could play a redemptive role in life. Hence, conversion can be thought of as a precipitation from the unconscious and is, generally, for the good. It reorientates the individual around a new centre of previously submerged energy.

Conversion matters to James for reasons other than that it is a common religious experience. He recognises that the strongest evidence for the existence of God is found in such personal, inner experience.

James examines what he takes to be the most valuable material: the best articulated and most profound records of conversion. For him, to do otherwise would be like declaring you were going to study music by excluding the work of Bach in favour of nursery rhymes, on the grounds that more people sing Three blind mice than the St Matthew Passion.

— Mark Vernon, “William James, part 4: The psychology of conversion”

The latter jibes with a cardinal point made by the late sociologist of religion Dr. Bryan R. Wilson:

The first duty of those who wish to present a fair picture of a religious fellowship is to seek the views of those who are faithfully committed to it and to undertake a first-hand study of their lifestyle.

— Dr. Bryan R. Wilson, from this published letter

The common thread here is the admonition to go to the source, to consult people who actually practice and live a particular faith, rather than basing one’s conclusions on secondary sources which may be compromised by various forms of self-interest, including the apostate’s need for self-justification, or the deprogrammer’s need to ply his or her trade. (See this earlier post on finding reliable spiritual sources.)

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