Terror in the name of religion?

A lack of basic understanding of religion promotes susceptibility to propaganda and radicalisation.

Religious radicalism is a very loose concept and a problematic term, states Elina Vuola, Academy Professor at the Faculty of Theology. Alongside her research, Vuola teaches in the Faculty’s Religion, Conflict and Dialogue Master’s programme.  

“If we look beyond our present moment, religious radicalism, or radicalism justified with religion, has always existed,” she notes.

This is to say that contemporary discussion of religious extremism should not be restricted to Islam.

“You could call Martin Luther a kind of religious radical of his time. And in Latin America, for example, religion has often been linked with radical political action. Similarly, the civil rights movement in the United States, which was led by Reverend Martin Luther King, was quite radical,” Vuola points out. A central issue is whether the movement justifies violence.

Vuola wants to clarify an important point: what do we mean when we talk about religious radicalism? Do we mean radical action for equality, or radical critique to change religious tradition, or do we mean violence justified with religion?

“We have to realise that the concept is relative, and not just think about religious radicalism in our own time or only within a single religious tradition.”

Religious radicalism and terrorism

In recent public discourse, religious radicalism has been primarily linked to violent acts of terror and Islam.  

Is it reasonable to try to explain acts of terror through religious fanaticism? Moderate Muslims consider the justifications used by terrorists a perversion of Islam.

“It is undeniable that religious themes are part of the motivation, and that religion is one of the factors used to justify acts of terror, alongside many other financial and political explanations," Viola says.  

She points to a report issued by the MI5 in 2008, according to which radicalised people had three things in common: they were young, male, and had a poor understanding of their own religion.

This means that while they justified their extremist violence with Islam, their actual understanding of the religion was rudimentary at best. Even Anders Behring Breivik cited Christianity in his manifesto for a “white Norway”.

“It is essential to maintain and increase religious education and literacy. If you know even the most basic teachings and creeds of your religion, and those of others, you will be much less susceptible to propaganda as well as to unfounded claims and conclusions."

From narrow interpretations to critical readings of religion

Vuola believes that posing the religious world in diametric opposition with the secular one, or single-mindedly opposing religion, can fuel religious extremism.

 “When arguments are based on fictional positions, such as the secular West in opposition to the terrorism-fueling Islam, we generate narrow, one-sided and superficial interpretations of both sides.”

This does not mean, however, that religions should not or cannot be criticised. A critical and analytic approach to both one’s own religion as well as others is a part of religious literacy.

“But religious criticism should be based on facts, not stereotypes,” Vuola points out.

Whose side is God on?

Vuola emphasises the significance of the study of religions. This is because she believes religions are particularly prone to being harnessed to political ideologies.

“Researchers should inform the public and the media of different kinds of religious traditions, of their culture-specific interpretations and the question of who has the power to make these interpretations. It is important to explain what kinds of value systems have been justified with religions through the ages, and what the consequences have been. Very different interpretations can exist within a single religion. For example, both Muslim and Christian communities are debating what kinds of political statements can be made based on the religion.”

Vuola also brings up another European phenomenon which has its roots far beyond the refugee crisis.

“We are currently focused on Islamic terrorism, which is understandable, but at the same time, we are losing sight of the fact that within and on the outskirts of what we consider to be our secular continent there is a powerful upsurge in the connection between religion and nationalism.

“This bolsters a view of a ‘white’ Europe, which should close its borders and refuse aid to those with ‘different’ religions.” The strengthened links between religion and nationalism as well as the deterioration of the rule of law, for example in Poland, Hungary and Russia, should be investigated. There are conflicting opinions even within the EU on what ‘European values’ are and what their connections to Christianity are.”

Read more:

Elina Vuola’s Finnish-language blog post Uskonnon ymmärtämisen vaikeudesta (Academy of Finland, 24 August 2016)

Articles in the series Uskonto terrorismin selittäjänä (Politiikasta.fi, a Finnish-language political studies portal)