Thursday, 8 January 2015

Charlie Hebdo

First and foremost, must be condolences to the family, friends and colleagues of those who lost their lives.

We now have another horrible incident to add to the ever-growing list of murders and plots caused by, as the media dubs them, religious extremists. Men and women have been gunned down, for nothing more than the publication of cartoons depicting religious figures (principally, in this case, the prophet Mohammed, though I understand the magazine satirised other religions also). Amateur footage from yesterday's incident shows men screaming 'god is great', in between bursts of gunfire. And yet, somehow, we continue to hear claims that the people carrying out these acts do not represent the Islamic religion.

I want to examine the idea that these men cannot be considered to be representative of Islam in general. This may well be true, given that the vast majority of Muslims in the West go about their daily lives peacefully, and would not dream of taking up a gun or a bomb and using it to prove a point. The same comparison applies if we consider that those hard-line Christians blowing up abortion clinics are not representative of the members of the religion as a whole.

However, my claim is not that extremists represent the behaviour of all members of that religion. Such a claim is demonstrably false, or we would all be living in a war zone daily. My claim is that the system of thought which the (principally Abrahamic) religion uses on a daily basis is one which leads to atrocities such as the one we have seen. Not for all adherents of the religion, not even for most, but for a large enough portion that we need to ask the question: what is it about this way of thinking which allows a man to walk into an office and gun down unarmed men and women, or fly an aeroplane into the side of a building, and believe it is the right thing to do?

Were this an isolated incident, we could perhaps write it off as an aberration, mental instability, or something of the kind. However, this incident is of a kind we witness all too regularly. Religious extremism is now commonplace in our news broadcasts. Why?

First of all, it's very hard to define what a religion condones, when its holy texts are filled with exhortations to violence, and its followers themselves cannot agree on major points of doctrine (see the Sunni/Shia split, the various Christian factions). In the eyes of the people perpetrating these acts, they are the true adherents of the faith, and this view is one which may be supported by an interpretation of the texts.

The religious mindset does three things well: it teaches people to accept dogma without considering it rationally, it creates a sense of division from (and superiority to) those who practice other religions, and it allows, in extreme cases, the commission of atrocities to be considered as the morally correct thing to do. Make no mistake, these people behave as if they genuinely believe their actions are morally correct and justified by their beliefs. The evidence for this is, unfortunately, plentiful.

Therefore, we must consider what actions may be appropriate in light of recent atrocities. Each person must have the right to his or her beliefs, and to the peaceful practice of them, and while it is my opinion that the world would be a safer place without religion in it, it is not my contention that any efforts should be made to ban or restrict (peaceful) religious practice. In any case, such measures are never successful.

What I would argue is that a greater push is needed, both from governments and religious leaders, to reaffirm the importance of peaceful behaviour to their congregations, as it were. Only a radical culture change will have any real effect in removing the attitudes which lead to extremism in the first place.

In time, it is likely that Islam will follow the same course as Judaism and Christianity before it, (generally speaking) turning from the path of violence towards a more settled acceptance of other world views. The problem is that many more people are likely to be killed in its name before this happens. If we fail to see that extremist views can be justified by a certain interpretation of the religion, we fail to understand the problem. And how can you solve a problem you don't understand?

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