Religious extremism, fundamentalism, violence and terrorism can be found around the world in worrisome supply. Although it must be noted that the mass media over-report on extremism because the content sells well. The phrase "religious extremism" describes faith-based actions that are deliberate attempts to cause harm to other people. It includes violent religious movements, routine asceticism that is extreme enough to cause medical concern and beliefs that cause harm through denial of medicine or mental harm through abusive family behaviours. Religious tolerance, multiculturalism and equality are the particular targets of extremists. Their own religion provides guidance that trumps any secular law or any concept of human rights1.
Although all mass movements breed the occasional extremist2, the horrific spectres of oppression and violent coercion have resulted mostly from Abrahamic monotheistic religions such as Judaism3, Christianity (mostly in the past) and Islam (particularly prone to it at present4), and to a lesser extent from other traditional religions such as Hinduism, especially as a result of battles against multiculturalism. Even Buddhism has sometimes been the source of violent extremists acting in the name of their religion. Most justifications for religious extremism are fundamentalist in nature, based squarely on religious doctrine, strictly interpreted. The declining strength of religion in the face of secularisation means there are fewer middle-ground religionists to rein in extremists. Although many national governments are involved in "fighting" extremism, very few succeed in making direct progress. The best way to avoid "home grown" extremists is to improve education, access to education, job security and family stability.
Fundamentalism is an approach to a religion's doctrine where its beliefs are enforced so strictly and literally that they are no longer compatible with the real-world as it is today. Some religions are more prone to fundamentalism than others5. The uncompromising attitude is a psychological boost, and fundamentalists will happily seek out areas of conflict between their own values and the values of those around them in order to publically highlight their own superior discipline. Also fundamentalists can be accidentally intolerant of others because by sticking so sternly to their own interpretation of the rules, they cannot make room for the diversity of real-life. It can descend into violent extremism but note, please, that some fundamentalist groups (such as the Amish and Jehovah's Witnesses) exist for very long periods with no sign of extremism. It often seems futile arguing with fundamentalists because most arguments against them merely prompt them to re-state doctrine.
Fundamentalist groups seem especially prone to schism and organisational instability, with most such groups being originally part of larger movements. Because personal beliefs are raised to the level of ultimate importance, every possible interpretation of (vague) doctrine will result in two sides who stake their entire religious outlook on the fact that their interpretation is correct6 and often "true believers are obligated to fight against corrupting influences from the broader culture"7 and to fight against any sign of 'false belief' from within their own ranks too, often leading to schism8. Many people push for increased rights for their own religion and for theocracy, 'out of an emotional attachment to their religion'9 but some people take it too far. The declining strength of religion in the face of secularisation means there are fewer middle-ground religionists to rein in fundamentalists. Fundamentalist branches of religion across various religions tend to share certain traits and features10, in particular scriptural literalism, active resistance against multiculturalism and the rejection of human rights.
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Some people opine that religious extremists are all deluded about the real teachings of their own religions. This is a tempting argument to make for liberals, because it means they can criticize extremists without criticizing entire religions. But life isn't so simple. Many extremists and fundamentalists have astoundingly good grasps of their own literature, and have devoted their lives to its study.
“All of the major creeds possess the potential to impede social, psychological, political, and intellectual development. And the seeds of such pathological religion lie sprinkled dangerously throughout the very sacred texts that believers often regard as error-free. [...] When religion leads to evil, it makes little sense to say that the believer has misconstrued the truth of the whole enterprise. The enterprise itself is a mixed bag.”
One thing that extremists do when encouraging each other is to highlight the role of the afterlife and to trivialise this life. In the words of Hoffer, "implanting in him a deprecating attitude toward the present and riveting his interest on things that are not yet"12. It also places such an emphasis on strict doctrine that the facts of the world are deprecated to the point of being forgotten. Again, according to Hoffer they are "interposing a fact-proof screen between him and reality (doctrine)"12.
Another factor of fundamentalist movements that prioritize religion over everything else is golden-age thinking, where a historical period of the religion is idolized and efforts are made to get "back to the roots" of the religion. Invariably, this means returning to an age of morality that pre-dates tolerance and human rights.
“A glorification of the past can serve as a means to belittle the present. [...] This preoccupation with the past stems not only from a desire to demonstrate the legitimacy of the movement and the illegitimacy of the old order, but also to show up the present [...]. He can let go of the present (and of his own life) not only because it is a poor thing, hardly worth hanging on to, but also because it is not the beginning and the end of all things.”
"The True Believer" by Eric Hoffer (1951)13
Neil Kressel notes that many of the worst extremists share beliefs in highly restrictive sexuality; a hatred of sexual liberality and a strong preference for "keeping women in traditional, subordinate roles"14.
“Several psychoanalysts15 have detected a connection between religious extremism and feelings about sex. The hostility of most militants toward homosexuals, the exaggerated concern about the sexual goings-on of other people, the angry reaction to permissive mainstream media broadcasts, the preference for women in nonrevealing garb, and the insistence upon a male-dominated power structure can all be seen as suggestive of difficulties in the management of sexual impulses. Perhaps militants fear their own sexual impulses.”
A conference on violent extremism in Dublin was attended by around 60 former violent extremists including ex jihadists, ex neo-Nazis and ex-gang-members, as reported by The Economist16 (2011). They had a surprising amount in common no matter how much their former ideologies differed. They talked of abuse suffered as children, "absent fathers, households plagued by alcoholism, lonely teenage years and their frustrated desire to belong" and struggles with cultural and religious identity amidst migrating families.17. In the modern globalized world, people migrate and move faster than communal ties solidify. Therefore, the pace and some of the negative effects of globalisation can produce disaffected individuals with fewer reasons to behave well towards others around them18.
It seems that there for someone to "become an extremist" capable of committing violent acts, there must be a period of build-up, in which violent acts are imagined and considered. This is a period of acclimatisation to future actions. The context for these acts is often the examples of religious martyrs from the adherents' own religion. Personal circumstances and personal psychology place a large role. So large, that the literature on what causes extremism is wild with speculation, but has not yet produced any formulaic or practical predictions about which individuals in particular will turn into extremists. It is important to note that "other reasons" and "something personal" is perhaps the most important factor to take into account. It means admitting that it is difficult to guess why us Humans go down any one bad instead of any other. Some theorize that religions are uniquely placed to encourage people into violence; others argue that religions are uniquely placed to stop radicalisation. The world is not a simple place.
When groups feel powerless, or even insufficiently powerful, members may turn to militancy in an attempt to overcompensate. Psychoanalyst W. W. Meissner comments that '[c]losed belief systems reflect underlying needs to compensate for feelings of inadequacy and self-hate by excessive concerns over power status'19 Thus, people from groups that have been experiencing severe identity threats will tend to get very defensive, especially when the symbols of their group are treated disrespectfully. The problem, however, is that militant believers have developed finely honed antennae that detect all real insults and some imagined ones, judging none sufficiently small enough to ignore.Sometimes people seem drawn to extremist faith as the best means to alleviate guilt they've experienced because of certain misdeeds-major, minor, or purely imagined. By asserting their boundless commitment to their religion, they may be able to escape their consciences and achieve expiation in a way they could not with moderate faith. [...]
Of course, one has only provided a partial answer when one says that extremists make bad choices. The reasons for these choices lie in aberrant individual psychologies, poor familial support systems, failed societies, dysfunctional political systems, distant historical events, antisocial religious traditions, and easy-to-abuse scriptures. Thus, efforts designed to persuade fanatics to discard their religious ideologies are not likely to get very far. [...]
The most important benefit that the believer gets from extremist faith may be the simpler solution it provides to existential problems. This may be what initially draws most people to religion in its various forms. For some, militant faith may work better (or seem to work better) than moderate faith in helping people to
- manage anxiety about death,
- believe life has meaning,
- overcome feelings of ultimate aloneness and bolster a sense of identity,
- escape from the overwhelming challenges brought about by too much freedom,
- address needs for strong self-esteem, and
- cleanse a sense of sinfulness.”
Hoffer says that these types of factors are consolidated by people who encourage a group-mentality, a them-and-us attitude wherein the outside world is denigrated in every negative way possible.
“This can be achieved by the thorough assimilation of the individual into a compact collective body... by preventing, through the injection of passions, the establishment of a stable equilibrium between the individual and his self (fanaticism).”
"The True Believer" by Eric Hoffer (1951)12
Religion is often used as a collective political identity regardless of whether people agree with the actual tenets of a religion20. Studies have found that many people join a religion not because they agree with its theological arguments, but because aids their political intentions21. Although rare in modern times, historically when mass conversions saw entire countries convert to a new religion, it nearly always coincided with the faith of a powerful conquering neighbour22,23. This bodes well for the material wellbeing of newly captured colonies but doesn't give us any positive evidence about whether or not the new religion has a healthy handle on the truth. The modern equivalent sees states like Russia push the Russian Orthodox Church on its people, and China push Taoism. In both cases, as luck would have it, the people en masse find that these organs of the state also happen to represent divine truth. Where those states are influential, there are many believers and where their power is remote, the believers melt away. It's not evidence driving belief, it is politics.
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“The very fact of being challenged means that those who do choose to believe will often do so with an intensity and enthusiasm which would have surprised those of early periods who simply took their faith for granted. As we see in the efforts of the Methodists or the Scottish Free Church evangelicals, the challenge to evangelize can inspire a powerful movement, but what is gained in individual intensity is lost in background affirmation. Becoming religious is attended by more dramatic behaviour consequences, but fewer people do it. There are now more zealots but fewer believers.”
"Religion in the Modern World: From Cathedrals to Cults" by Steve Bruce (1996)24
“One reason for the rise of contemporary religious extremism has been the perception among believers that their ways are under attack from progressive forces. [...] Precisely at the moment when one's culture seems under unremitting attack, one feels the greatest need for a reassertion of self-esteem based on the traditional identity. And this becomes the engine that fuels much fanaticism.”
The move of much of the developed world to a non-religious outlook has seen nation-states and institutions embrace technology, science and evidence-based logic instead of revelation. Those with a fundamentalist bent have clung to religion all the more tightly. As there are far fewer middle-ground religionists who can reign them in, extremist groups are growing in power within most established religions, as well as forming brand new movements of their own. They find themselves in frequent battles with those of the world who do not share their views on life. Fundamentalists, and many other religious folk, raise many elements of human behaviour to matters of eternal life-or-death, and, consider some areas of life completely taboo, and consider some symbols so sacred that they will not tolerate any criticism of them. The slip into extremism is natural.
The opposite to this is secularisation, which is the general loss of public religion, and it is often combined with large-scale loss of knowledge about religions. So "when political authorities deal insensitively - as they often have - with the symbols of culture and religion, identity threats became, for many, intolerable" to the extent that they will react with violence26 Putting it more simply, Anthropologist Richard Antoun says "fundamentalism is a response to the questioning of the great religious traditions... in the changing world"27.
Secularisation has a polarizing effect; often those who "cling to" religion are those who are naturally more fundamentalist and extremist. The result is that there are fewer moderates to reign-in extremists. By weakening the number and powers of moderates, secularisation tends to given extremists more power within their religions.
“Extremis[ts] are much more likely to come from times and places where events are unpredictable, unstable, confusing, and potentially dangerous. Modernization and globalization have unleashed destabilizing forces in many parts of the world, and the consequences have been most intense for latecomers to modernity. Failed societies are most at risk, where political and social systems deny basic gratifications to large segments of the population. [...] The lack of protective constitutional provisions like freedom of religion, freedom of speech, freedom of the press, and a strong independent judiciary all increase the potential for religious extremism.”
In those places of the world where government forces are fighting wars against irregular enemies, there is a frequent refrain from military analysts: A side-effect of harming members of communities is that survivors sometimes become radicalized (even if they were previously tolerant) because the effect on their families and loved ones. The USA's infamous air-based "shock and awe" technique involves the widespread (targeted) use of using long-distance missiles. But critics have spoken out loudly about the negative psychological effect of those who live near such attacks - many of those signing up for extremist Islamic movements have cited air strikes as the reason that they personally chose to embrace violent ideology.
On the personal scale: There have been violent extremists who have emerged from stable families that are not poor, who were undergoing good education in the West, who simply seem to have taken a morbid dislike of their surrounding culture. One case I recall from interviews involved a maturing student who couldn't stand US culture of sexual liberality and perceived shallow egotism on a large scale. Finding no expression for this dislike, he fell into a habit of reading horrible anti-Western literature, until eventually he radicalized himself, and committed an act of terror. He appears on this page about religious extremism because the literature he indulged in was Islamic, and his families' religion was Islam, and he came to articulate his hatred in accurate exegesis from his religion's texts. It is very hard to tell if he'd followed the same path without the encouragement from what he found in words.
On the subcultural scale: There are communities of believers who use religious texts to convince each other that increasingly antagonistic methods are warranted, because they perceive themselves as living in an unworthy, hostile or decadent culture. If the local culture is against them and little they do sways public opinion, it is all the more likely that they'll no longer attempt a friendly approach.
On the cultural scale: It is a very common refrain amongst strict traditional religionists that they perceive the majority of the West to be marching down a liberal route that they simply condemn and abhor. From individual rights to equality and tolerance, and the moving of religion to the private sphere rather than the public, some cultures hate it all.
Several the causes listed above fall under the banner of modernism. As a total it represents a way of life that is radically different from that of a few hundred years ago; the work-life balance, individualism, family affairs, communications and interpersonal relations are all moderated by global concerns. A team of psychologists investigating extremism (Ralph W. Hood Jr., Peter C. Hill & W. Paul Williamson) concluded along with many others others that extremist views have "typically been adopted as part of a defensive reaction to modernism"29. And in direct opposition to modernism stand a long list of facets of extremism, occurring in extremist groups no matter their geographic location of religion:
“The worst manifestations of militancy in recent times seem to involve all or most of the following elements:
- Idealization of some past era combined with the belief that the world has gone awry
- Declared certainty of the correctness of one's religious vision
- Unwillingness to compromise with those who disagree
- Powerful denunciation of people with different lifestyles...
- Devaluation of events in this world and intense focus on life after death
- Willingness to assume the role of God's 'hit man,' defending the deity and his representatives against all perceived insults
- Veneration of some religious leader or leaders
- Lack of concern for earthly evidence, except of the sort sanctioned by the religious system
- Frequent acceptance of the desired ends as justification for unsavory means
- Adoption of numerous defensive methods for avoiding serious encounters with conflicting systems of belief and their adherents
A large amount of research by sociologists, psychologically and social policy academics have all found that allowing communities to segregate themselves along religious or racial lines (sectarianism) causes strife, intolerance and conflict30. The longer it persists and the more comprehensive the segregation, the worse it gets. See: Faith Schools in the UK: 2. Sectarian Schools Breed Cultural Conflict.
The God of the Abrahamic religions, so far as it is concerned in The Bible, The Koran, and in history, hates opposing Gods. The Israelites are described as being commanded by God, time and time again, to wage war against and kill nonbelieving pagans because they dare to worship icons, fake gods, and any number of unapproved things. Worshipping wrongly is prohibited in the traditional Ten Commandments, and is consistently one of the most punished crimes in the holy texts of Jews, Christians and Muslims. The emphasis on correctness of individual belief and individual salvation has led monotheism down an intolerant and often violent path in history. The development that "insiders are correct" and "outsiders are wrong" is not a feature of simple tribal religions31, but this idea of correctness developed alongside literacy, especially in monotheistic religions, finding particular prominence in Christianity of the first century32. It made the new monotheism sectarian, schismatic and aggressive; social and moral laws were deemed inferior to the new emphasis on textual fundamentalism. It heralded a new type of religion, fundamentally hostile to all other religions.33
The aggressive stance towards others who believe "wrongly" did not only engender intolerance towards other religions, but, is the cause of the long series of wars and conflicts within Christianity. No other religion has spawned a machine such as the Inquisition, for example, designed to seek out and crush those whose beliefs differ from the official line by the smallest amounts. It has an impact on the way that Christian sects rise and fall - but it is worth noting that Islam and other religions where textual fundamentalism easily develops follow the same route. The sociologist Steve Bruce notes a general pattern - as a sect grows and includes more and more members, it is forced to gradually become more tolerant of diversity. "Some conservatives resist this direction and break away to form new purified conservative sects. The new mainstream becomes more liberal and declines further. The new sects grow until they too become increasingly denominational and mainstream, and so on"34.
Christians in history have been so discouraged from even studying other religions and cultures that their statements and opinions on others' faiths can be jaw-droppingly ignorant. What Horatius Bonar wrote in ~1850CE is a mild symptom of a serious problem with historical Christian culture: "There [cannot] be anything more hollow and unreal than religion without the Holy Spirit". What for some is merely a description of other religions as hollow and unreal is for others a license to suppress, murder and kill. Intolerance stems from the very core of the Abrahamic religion's stance on truth and tolerance.
“One remarks a singular contrast between the sacred books of the Hebrews, and those of the Indians. The Indian books announce only peace and gentleness; they forbid the killing of animals: the Hebrew books speak only of killing, of the massacre of men and beasts; everything is slaughtered in the name of the Lord; it is quite another order of things.”
"Voltaire's Philosophical Dictionary"
Sigmund Freud's book Moses and Monotheism drew the same conclusions: the teachings of Moses are contrary to the peaceful co-existence of religions. "More recently, Bernard Lewis and Mark Cohen have argued that the modern understanding of tolerance, involving concepts of national identity and equal citizenship for persons of different religions, was not considered a value by pre-modern Muslims or Christians, due to the implications of monotheism. The historian G.R. Elton explains that in pre-modern times, monotheists viewed such toleration as a sign of weakness or even wickedness towards God"36. This irrational play-fighting with imaginary friends would be humorous and ridiculous, if it were not for the serious and deadly consequences it has had in history.
Buddhists, Hindus and Sikhs have better and more peaceful histories especially when it comes to religious tolerance. Polytheism is much more naturally tolerant towards having 'others' worship 'other' god(s). The times when Buddhists, Hindus and Sikhs have caused violence and terrorism in the name of the religions has generally come from times when they are repulsing multiculturalism. They haven't displayed the internal struggles and sect-based oppression that mainstream Christianity and Islam have.
Modern Judaism does not lend itself to violence or extremism37. In history it has proven to be the most peaceable Abrahamic religion. Nonetheless Judaism has still amassed a monstrous catalogue of horrors in its name. If the stories of the Bible can be believed, the founding of Judaism occurred amidst pointlessly murderous battles with the rightful native inhabitants of Canaan and huge numbers of Biblical statements can be used to support violence and aggression in the name of religion. In history, Jewish nations conducted forced conversion en masse38. Modern terrorist incidents have also centered on the struggles to control land that has special religious significance for Jews in Israel. Extremist groups in the West Bank have executed violent terrorist campaigns against Palestinians and other campaigns have occurred against the Temple Mount39,40,41,42,43. Today, mainstream Judaism and the government of Israel speak out consistently and strongly against extremism, but the Haredim (ultra-conservative Orthodox Jews) are still growing in number and can be found aggressively trying to segregate the genders, enforcing strict rules of dress on others and banning free access to secular reading material especially via the Internet.
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So here are verses from the Hebrew Scriptures that endorse violence and murder: The Hebrew Scriptures, which the Christians adopted as their Old Testament, are infamously violent. The endorsements of violence, mass murder and rape & pillage are dramatic, and are conducted under the direct commands of God for the betterment of the believer's religion44. The worry is that this gives justification for anyone who hears voices in their head telling them to murder for their religion that actually they should do so, and indeed, historically many have used the Bible to justify murder. For example, Emperor Theodosius tricked, trapped and murdered several thousand civilians from Thessalonia, and when his Bishop complained, he argued that he was acting as did David from the Old Testament45,46. Many Jewish terrorists have followed this line of logic and for hundreds of years Europe fell into the barbaric and ignorant dark ages under the terrible machinations of Christian institutions that embraced the Bible's endorsements of violence.
Exodus 15:3 states that God loves war, but it is not just enemy combatants that are the target. Exodus 22:18 has been used as the basis for murdering women accused of all manner of daft superstitious things ("thou shalt not suffer a witch to live"). Exodus 32:27-29 has the God of Israel command the army to murder sons, brothers, friends and neighbours and they are then blessed for doing so. In Numbers 31:17 they are told to murder all the children amongst the enemies and any woman who might be pregnant. Deuteronomy 7:1 tells the Israelites to occupy their future land and exterminate the original inhabitants because they are infidels: "you're to make no compromise with them or show them any mercy". Deuteronomy 13:6-9 says that if your relatives or friends try to get you to worship other gods, you must kill them "without mercy" - a deed that Abraham attempts in Genesis 22:1-18. In Deuteronomy 20:16-18 they are told to exterminate "everything that breaths". Joshua 6:21-24 and Judges 20 tell stories where God wants them to kill "everyone in the city, men, women, young and old. They also killed the cattle, sheep and donkeys. ... And they burnt the city with fire" and looted all they could. All with no morality nor sense of loss at all. 1 Samuel 15:1-8 has it that because the indigenous people of Amalek opposed God's murderous army, they killed all the men, women, children, babies, cattle, camels and donkeys there47. Likewise, in 1 Kings 18:21-40 the great prophet Elijah murders 450 followers of Baal because they follow the wrong God. Not all the slaughter is on God's chosen land: In Esther 9:12-16 the Israelites slaughter over 75,000 enemies in an internal strife in the Persian empire. In Hosea 13:16 the infants of Samaria will be "dashed in pieces" because the people no longer follow Israel's bloody God. If you are in any doubt that God commands bloodshed in his name then Jeremiah 48:10 declares that you will be cursed if you refrain from bloodshed. These examples are where it is Humans carrying out God's will and don't include the many times where God leads by murderous example.
For more, see: Endorsement of Violence and Murder in the Old Testament.
Christianity has had a very troubled past when it comes to violence and extremism48,49. Problems with tolerance of other religions and beliefs began from its very inception within the Roman Empire32 and to the extent that Christianity "has insisted over the centuries that its way is the only true way [...] it has developed a militancy and a tendency toward fundamentalism"50. Christian Emperor Constantine had to deal with constant violent inter-denominational conflict, and time and time again had to rule in favour of one side or another, with bloodshed and violence resulting from each new division that appeared51. "Pagans openly taunted Christians about their internal battles"51. Future emperors Julian and Diocletian tried to restore paganism in order to return the old days of multi-faith tolerance52,53. Over its first few hundred years dozens of Christian sects were wiped out including the Ebionites, Arians and Marcionites. The victorious Cappadocian-Nicene sect of Pauline Christianity got to select which books to put into the Bible and which doctrine to declare orthodox. An industry of anti-heresy institutions spread terror throughout Europe, resulting in the Dark Ages54,55. The Waldenses and Cathars were attacked, and Jews and Muslims were subject to entire Crusades against them.
The violence stems from New Testament doctrine; Luke 14:23 says "Compel people to come in!". Matthew 10:34-37 and Luke 12:51-53 repeat the theme that Jesus says "I am not come to send peace, but a sword". 1 John 5:1-5,10 warns that having wrong beliefs makes you worthless. 2 John says that if you don't have the right beliefs about the relationship between Jesus-as-god and Jesus-as-man then you are godless (2 John 1:7-9), and Christians can't greet you politely nor welcome you in to church or home (2 John 1:10-11). Just to greet people with wrong beliefs, says 2 John, is to be in league with evil! This has no doubt helped encourage the intolerant and fundamentalist streams in Christian history. 2 John does contradict a few other verses in the Bible that say Christians should debate doctrine patiently and respectfully (1 Peter 3:15-16, 2 Timothy 4:2, Titus 3:2 and Colossians 4:6). The entire book of Jude is dedicated to preaching that those who have erroneous beliefs are ungodly and need to be "rescued". These verses and many like them in the Old Testament set the scene for aggression against those who do not believe the right things.
In modern times, the Christian institutions remains the West's strongest campaigners against LGBT equality, family planning, science education and gender equality; all of these battles have seen emboldened Christians commit acts of violence and atrocity against their perceived enemies48. Christian organisations have a particular problem with child abuse, possibly as a result of strict teachings on sexuality which see some of the priesthood attempt to live lives of celibacy56. Although fundamentalism is a strong and growing wing of modern Christianity57,58,59, the vast majority of Christians are thankfully now moderate or liberal and there is strong criticism of extremism from many Christian institutions.
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Militant Islam is rife in the modern world60,61. Islamic terrorism is a constant threat to worldwide international stability61, and a string of historical (and ongoing) movements have resulted in uncountable deaths, mostly of innocent victims. Religious persecution is very much worse in Muslim-majority countries; sixty-two percent of Muslim-majority countries have moderate to high levels of persecution and of the 14 worst countries for religious persecution and violence, 13 are predominantly Muslim62. This cause of this is not ethnic or wealth-related; it stems from Muslim teachings and internal movements towards stricter Islam63. Right from the start, "the traditional sources of the Islamic faith - the Koran, the Sunna, the hadiths - provide crystal-clear justification for the entire program of militancy"64. Of the first four successors to Muhammad, three were assassinated60. A 2014 study found 41% of the people in Pakistan supported acts of deadly violence in defense of Islam as did 39% in Lebanon, 15% Indonesia, 13% in Morocco, and 57% in Jordan - "even in Turkey, a member of NATO, 14 percent see some good in terrorism when carried out in the name of Islam".65.
Although much of this violence is directed on Muslims by other Muslims, where strong Muslim communities exist alongside others outwards persecution is common, and often very severe. Dutch politician Pim Fortuyn in 2002 was murdered by a Dutch Muslim for perceived insults against Islam66. Hundreds of "honour killings" have seen women murdered by their own families for failing to adhere to Muslim ideas on relationships and behaviour. Pressure is exerted against all of the most vocal critics of Islam almost no matter where they are in the world. Antisemitism is strongly associated with Islam across the world, especially in Muslim countries and places in Europe with Muslim communities67.
Many powerful, rich and well-established Islamic organisations support schools of thought that are inherently intolerant. Saudi Arabia pumps "a great deal of money into a variety of radicalizing organizations... as a consequence of their commitment to Wahhabi Islam"68. "What may truly be needed is a wholesale, indigenous reformation of Islam"69 but grassroots movements towards strict Islam rise to counter the beginnings of liberalism in the Muslim world and its moderates are feeble and persecuted70.There is a long way to go before Islam emerges from its Dark Ages.
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Buddhism, of all the major world religions, has the greatest record for peace and good morality. Compared with popular world religions, Buddhism is calm both in theory and in practice. Nonetheless, various forms of Buddhism at various times have been instruments of war, violence and intolerance and "was in fact the inspiration behind many of the martial arts of China and Japan"71 during their violent expansionist periods. Buddhist sects have argued and fought over doctrine, over populations and methods, over pride and national independence. These aren't just historical issues. Countries such as Burma and Laos have a pro-Buddhist bias in their legal systems, leading to prejudice, social intolerance and inequality72,73. In Burma, Sri Lanka and Thailand the majority of the populace are Theravada Buddhist, but all are notable as places where Buddhist-inspired violence has prevailed over Buddhist-inspired peace3,73.
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Hindu extremism has somewhat increased over the past few decades27 by right-wing Hindu nationalists74, with the popularist Hindutva movement wanting to make India a more exclusively Hindu nation75. There are thousands of attacks against religious minorities every year. Violence nearly always involves anti-Muslim attacks, in India, with any reaction by their victims then stimulating Hindu mobs to enact further property damage and murder. For example, when the Babri Masjid mosque was destroyed by Hindu activists in 1992, thousands of protesting Muslims lost their lives in a very one-sided series of mob fights76,77. Hindu nationalists also sometimes target Christians78,79,80, for example, over Christmas 2007 in one state, a hundred churches were damaged and 700 Christian homes destroyed81.
Complicit in the discord are political parties that use race and religion to divide people and stoke hatred; since 1999 the most popular of these are the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) who have orchestrated and encouraged some of the worst scenes of violence and destruction82, and are most involved in states where persecution by Hindus is highest81, Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), Vishva Hindu Parishad (VHP)3 and Shiv Sena82. Hindu extremism has become "an impediment to the exercise and enjoyment of internationally recognized human rights"74.
The Bhagavad Gita can easily be searched for content that condones the righteous murder of enemies, right from its second chapter83. Despite all this, a common argument of Hindu academics is to point out, quite correctly, that Hinduism has a per-capital rate of violence far lower than Christianity or Islam, and that polytheism is more naturally inclined to be tolerant and accepting of others' beliefs84.
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Sikhism is a peaceful religion, whose traditions emphasize helping others. In worldwide history, less violence has been conducted in the name of Sikhism than in most other world religions. But there are four topics that risk fresh eruptions of Sikh extremism:
Martial Imagery abounds in Sikhism85, risking encouraging pseudo-military endeavours and personal violence. The Khanda, the primary symbol of Sikhism, is comprised of four pointed-up weapons, and of the "Five Ks" - Sikh dress and appearance - three are related to aggression: The steel of the kara bangle represents strength, the Kirpan is a small sword or dagger and the Kacchera (short trousers) "signify readiness to ride into battle".
The Khalistan movement saw 20 years of Sikh violence in an attempt to partition off part of India as a new independent Sikh state85; hundreds were killed in fights and by Sikh terrorist actions86. It culminated in the assassination of Indian prime minister Indira Gandhi by Sikh members of her bodyguard in 198487. Although most Indians consider Bhindranwale a terrorist, he is still described as a 'martyr' by Akal Takht (Sikh highest religious authority).87,88.
The Sarbat Khalsa is a Sikh gathering in times of emergency86: these have been used almost always to conduct violence and revenge, especially in the 18th century when the Muslim Mughal empire was exterminating Sikhs86. It was called in 1986 as Sikhs suffered from the backlash after they assassinated the Indian Prime Minister86.
The Threat of Disproportionate Violence to Prevent Blasphemy Against the Granth Sahib as a result of the way they treat it as a living teacher. When torn pages of the Granth Sahib began showing up in Punjab in 2015, Sarbat Khalsa was called again, and 100,000 Sikhs gathered and called for a jailed violent extremist to return to a leadership role86. Nothing came of it, but It's easy to imagine such a gathering resulting in widespread violence on future occasions.
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