Religious extremism is a radicalized and intolerant viewpoint that typically sanctions the use of violence to promote a defined, religiously motivated political agenda. Religious extremist groups share several interlocking characteristics. Among the most important are a sense of persecution, a sense of injustice suffered at the hand of a larger force or ideological entity (such as secularism, the state, a colonial power, or an invading military force), a perceived lack of cultural or political control over one’s preferred way of life, a perceived loss of traditional values and mores, and finally, the idea that sacrifice is necessary to achieve the ends of the group. Religious extremists usually do not identify themselves as extremist. Rather, they identify themselves alternatively as victims, defenders, and saviors.
Religious extremist groups and organizations tend to place adherence to a single religious interpretation as the basis for all other relations. In other words, these groups will embrace and promote a single interpretation of a religious text or ideal that differs significantly from that of the mainstream religion. Acceptance of this interpretation is a key criterion for membership. Religious extremist groups usually have distinct political goals derived from and defined by this interpretation. Acceptance of these political goals is another criterion for membership.
Some people mistakenly identify religious extremism with fundamentalism. However, while extremists tend to promote violence as a means to a political end, fundamentalists need not embrace a religiously motivated political agenda, violent or otherwise. While some extremist groups are fundamentalist, not all fundamentalists are religious extremists. People also confuse religious extremist groups with terrorist organizations. Although many extremist religious groups endorse terror as a means of furthering their religious and political agendas, it would be a mistake to label all groups who use terrorism as religious extremists. For example, the Tamil Tigers, a terrorist organization in Sri Lanka, identify as Tamil nationalists against their enemies, the Sinhalese. While it is true that most Tamils tend to be Muslim and most Sinhalese tend to be Buddhist, the Tamil Tigers’ mission and identity center around nationalist and secular lines, not religious ones.
Thinking of religious extremism as a modern phenomenon is a controversial interpretation. Medieval history, for example, is rife with violence in the name of religion. The Crusades and the Inquisition in its various forms and stages are but two examples. By the same token, Muslim expansion into Western Europe during the eighth through twelfth centuries and Europe’s Thirty Years War between Catholic and Protestant nations in the 17th century could also be described as extremist. Yet to expand the definition of religious extremism to include these and many state-(or civilization-) sponsored wars waged for geopolitical and imperialist ends, even if they were fought in the name of a particular religion, is not helpful in understanding the nature of religious extremism as a contemporary social problem.
The work of Samuel Huntington, a prominent U.S. scholar, supports this view. In 1993, Huntington wrote a watershed article in the periodical Foreign Affairs in which he claimed that the end of the cold war spelled the end of secular ideologies (such as liberalism and communism) as the fault line for violence. In their place, “civilization” would arise as the new identity marker and rallying point for violence. Huntington defined civilization as comprising ethnic, national, religious, linguistic, and geographic identities. Implicit in his argument was the sense that the modern era, with its emphasis on reason, secularism, enlightenment, and science, for a time was able to quash ethnicity, nationalism, and religion as primary identity markers but it did not eradicate them. Huntington predicted that the end of the ideologically driven cold war, waged by the United States and Western Europe on the one hand and the USSR and Eastern Europe on the other, would bring the resurgence of these preexisting civilization-driven identities and, it may be added, the creation of new ones.
In the contemporary world, religious extremist groups embrace extralegal and violent means to further their ends, which often clash with the state’s goal of keeping the peace and maintaining a monopoly over the means of violence. This is not to say that religious extremist groups exist only in recognized nation-states. These groups can spring up in failed states, or in territories unrecognized as states, or where state control is lax due to geography or lack of resources. Hamas, which stands for Islamic Resistance Movement, is one such example. It is the largest Palestinian militant organization, and its political goal is to establish an Islamic state in place of Israel. Hamas has a large network of social services that provide aid to the Palestinian poor. It promotes its own interpretation of Islam, emphasizing jihad (holy war) against the Zionists, and it uses terrorism to further its political and religious agenda.
Many popular views concerning the nature of religious extremism are rife with misunderstanding. A common mischaracterization of religious extremism among many in the Christian West is that Islam lends itself to extremist views more than do other religions.
This view has been particularly rampant in the United States since the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, D.C., on September 11, 2001. The attacks brought the discussion of religious extremism and terrorism to the forefront in political, academic, and popular circles. Political leaders and others of influence in the West have perpetuated, or at the very least not refuted, claims that it is within the nature of Islam itself to be violent. Yet moderate Muslims worldwide are no more prone to violence than are moderate Christians or Hindus. Religious extremist groups, regardless of religious affiliation, have more in common with each other than they do with the mainstream religions that spawned them.
Examples of Religious Extremist Groups
Religious extremist groups spring from almost every major world religion. Four examples—one each from Christianity, Judaism, Islam, and Hinduism— illustrate this point. The list is far from exhaustive, as many different religious extremist organizations exist for almost every world religion. As these four examples illustrate, religious extremist groups often reinterpret the tenets of the mainstream religion to justify their violent political agendas.
Army of God
- Original mainstream religious affiliation: Christian
- Rallying point: Pro-life activism
- Religious interpretation: Biblical passages must be interpreted literally and inform everyday practice (Christian fundamentalism).
- Political goal: To make abortion illegal in the United States
- Religious goal: To desecularize U.S. society by emphasizing the evils of birth control, abortion, and feminism and to place the nuclear family at the center of U.S. values
- Means endorsed to achieve political goal: Targeted assassination, notably the murder of doctors who perform abortions, and intimidation, including the physical blocking of entrances to clinics that provide Planned Parenthood services
Jewish Defense League
- Original mainstream religious affiliation: Judaism
- Rallying point: The Five Principles: Jewish unity and indivisibility; upholding pride in Jewish faith, culture, history, and land; self-sacrifice for their greater good; discipline and willpower; and faith in the indestructibility of the Jewish people
- Religious interpretation: The Torah clearly delineates between good and evil and right and wrong. Wrong is all things harmful to the Jewish people. Right is all things that promote the Jewish people.
- Political goal: To reserve the land of Israel for Jews. Thus no concessions to the demands of Palestinians or Jews promoting compromise should be made.
- Religious goal: Those who harm Jews and thus the faith must be overcome by any and all means necessary.
- Means endorsed to achieve political goal: Self-sacrifice, the targeted use of force, and murder
- Original mainstream religious affiliation: Islam
- Rallying point: Muslims must be freed from the corrupting influence of the West.
- Religious interpretation: Militant Sunni Islam
- Political goal: To end Western presence in, and unify, the Middle East
- Religious goal: The creation of a new pan-Islamic caliphate as the legitimate successor to Muhammad
- Means endorsed to achieve political goal: Self-sacrifice through targeted terror attacks
- Original mainstream religious affiliation: Hinduism
- Rallying point: Their official motto is Seva, Suraksha, Sanskar, which translates to “Service, Security, and Embellishment.” The youth arm of the Vishva Hindu Parishad (VHP), Bajrang Dal serves as its security force.
- Religious interpretation: True Hindus choose death before relinquishing freedom.
- Political goal: To reverse imperial incursions of Christianity and Islam in India, and to restore disputed places of worship to Hindu control
- Religious goal: To defend downtrodden and victimized Hindus from those who do not respect Hinduism in India, notably Muslims, Christians, and moderate Hindus
- Means endorsed to achieve political goal: Terrorism, particularly indiscriminate communal violence against Muslim and Christian enclaves
- Aikman, David. 2003. “The Great Revival: Understanding Religious Fundamentalism.” Foreign Affairs 82(4):188-93.
- Almond, Gabriel A., R. Scott Appleby, and Emmanuel Sivan. 2003. Strong Religion: The Rise of Fundamentalisms around the World. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
- Huntington, Samuel. 1993. “The Clash of Civilizations?” Foreign Affairs 72(3):22-49.
- Marsden, George. 2006. Fundamentalism and American Culture. New York: Oxford University Press.
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