Islam: Fanatics, Reality and a Hopeful Future

Second in a two part series

A sermon by Rev. Brian J. Kiely  Unitarian Church of Edmonton  February 26, 2017


In the name of Allah, the beneficent, the merciful.

Praise be to the Lord of the Universe who has created us and made us into tribes and nations, that we may know each other, not that we may despise each other. If the enemy incline towards peace, do thou also incline towards peace, and trust in God, for the Lord is the one that heareth and knoweth all things. And the servants of God, Most Gracious are those who walk on the Earth in humility, and when we address them, we say “PEACE.”

—Based on the Koran, 49:13, 8:61


As a resident of Canada, as a member of a liberal religious faith that prides itself on openness, toleration and often outright acceptance of differing beliefs,  I can only stand back and ask uncomprehendingly, “What were they thinking?”

I read the stories of religion-inspired hate and violence, of the making of martyrs willing and unwilling, of the condemnation of any who would dare challenge belief or the human-made laws based on that belief and I am stunned by how badly religion went off the rails.

As one observer wrote:

“Religion has become a perpetual foundation of war and contention: all those flames that have made such havoc and desolation…, and have not been quenched but with blood of so many…, have first been kindled at the altar.”

Now, of course, that observer was John Locke, and he was commenting in 1660.  He was writing primarily about the persecution of one variety of Christians by other varieties of Christians during the wars of religion that followed the Reformation.  But his remarks are just as pertinent today.

And I think this is a good place to start, for Locke reminds us that extremism exists  or has existed in many, if not all, religions.  In every case they are a perversion of the faith they claim to represent.

It is easy for us in the west to point to the stream of extremism present in some pockets of Islam and blame the whole faith, but that would be easy… and wrong.  Islam is the religion of peace and neighbourliness that I mentioned last week.  There are grand examples of how they have been the victims of extremism in the far past and also at a Quebec City mosque in the very near past.

Historian Erna Paris noted Christians, Muslims and Jews lived together in relative harmony in medieval Spain. Then the Catholic Church instituted the Spanish Inquisition with its use of terror and racism, turning a pluralistic society into a police state. She calls what happened in Spain “a cautionary tale for today.”  As we look at Islamist fundamentalism today, and the rise of the alt right in response, we would do well to bear in mind that wider panorama.

A definition: ‘Islamist’ is the phrase of some currency today.   Well it was until a recent election when it was once again supplanted by ‘Muslim terrorist”.

Middle East scholar Daniel Pipes defines Islamist as, “an ideology that demands man’s complete adherence to the sacred law of Islam and rejects as much as possible outside influence, with some exceptions (such as access to military and medical technology). It is imbued with a deep antagonism towards non-Muslims and has a particular hostility towards the West. It amounts to an effort to turn Islam, a religion and civilization, into an ideology.”

What unites all forms of extremist belief is a conviction that life has gone off the rails, that the people have lost their way and that a return to strict religious observance is the only way out.

According to theologian Karen Armstrong, respected author of “The Battle for God”, extremists of all faiths share some characteristics.  “First, they withdraw from mainstream society to form sacred enclaves of pure faith…    These ultra-conservative churches, colleges, yeshivas, communes, settlements, study groups are fortresses where the ‘faithful’ can live what they regard as a true religious life.  They create a counter-culture, in conscious reaction against the modern society, which fills them with such dread.  But from these bastions, fundamentalists can sometimes plan a political, military or social offensive.”

Today, we have to add a new sort of community found on the dark side of the internet.  Where once terrorists trained exclusively in isolated camps, now more and more disaffected young men (mostly) being indoctrinated online.

But let’s not paint with too broad a brush. Religious militancy is not the always violent.  These offensives can be as simple as political activism, non-violent civil disobedience or public preaching.  In many parts of the world, religious militants have confined themselves to welfare campaigns and radical acts of charity.  Mother Teresa is an example of this kind of loving militancy and there are many others.  Violent acts are perpetrated by a minutely small proportion of fanatics, the extremist fragment of the militants.

How do they come to be?  By and large the extremists can find some grounding within their religious traditions.  St. Ignatius developed harsh spiritual exercises and so trained Catholics to be Soldiers of Christ.  The Salvation Army sings, “Onward Christian soldiers marching as to war.”  It becomes very easy for the deranged mind to change that ‘as to’ into ‘on to war’.

Karen Armstrong describes how when Islam was born, the Arabian peninsula was in crisis.  The tribal system was breaking down and massively violent vendettas were common.  Muhammed had to go to war even as he was engaged in the 23 year long revelation of the Qu’ran,  but as the tide turned, he adopted a strategy of building peaceful coalitions where he could, and initiated a brave and unheard of policy of non-violence.  It worked.  The Arabian peninsula united, peacefully, under Islam.

Armstrong writes, “Because the Qu’ran was revealed in the context of all out war, several passages deal with the conduct of armed conflict.  Warfare was a desperate business in Arabia.  An Arab chief was not expected to take prisoners; it was a given that he would simply kill everybody he could get his hands on.  Muhammed knew that if the Muslims were defeated they would be slaughtered to the last man or woman.

“Sometimes the Qu’ran seems to have imbibed this spirit.  Muslims are ordered by God to ‘slay (the enemy) wherever you find them’ (4:89).  Muslim extremists …like to quote these verses, but they do so selectively, never quoting the exhortations to peace and forbearance that in almost every case mitigate these ferocious injunctions in the verses immediately following.  Thus (the very next verse) ‘If they leave you alone and offer to make peace with you, God does not allow you to harm them’ (4:90)”

Armstrong also makes the point that what would normally be a peaceful kind of fundamentalism usually only tips over into violence in a society already at war or in conflict.  Why?  The only war condoned in the Qu’ran is in self defence.  Muslims may never initiate hostilities, and aggression is forbidden by God.

So Islamists must recast any perceived threat into something real, persistent and war-like.  To this end, President Bush II made a serious error in judgment when he declared a ‘war on terrorism’.  He made Bin Laden’s crusade just that much easier.

Generally the persuading argument runs much like what you saw in the video clip from the 2005 film “Syriana, that western culture and music, fashion magazines and liberal ideas about human rights and sexuality are the insidious aggressions of a quiet war.  The west, led by the United States, is waging an economic and cultural war intent on destroying Islam.

And “Syriana’s” thinly disguised Pakistani worker toiling in a Saudi oilfield, paid next to nothing, living in shanty conditions and yet aware of the ridiculous wealth of the western financed rulers, could easily find it a pretty convincing argument.  In the film, the worker is mostly confined to a foreign workers camp.

It is easy for Islamist recruiters to appear in the guise of teachers of the faith, to pluck some of the impoverished and disaffected young men.  They take them to a place of comfort, to feed and clothe them. They then turn that camp into the kind of ultra-conservative study group that Armstrong named as a key to the success of fundamentalist groups.   The young man in the story had just been beaten by the police when trying to protect his father while standing in a long immigration line-up.  Those charged with his welfare had abandoned him.  His mind became a fertile ground for hate and fanaticism.  He is ripe for recruitment.  And along came a smooth recruiter who did just that.  At film’s end we see the young man driving an American made weapon into the bow of an oil tanker destroying the ship and himself.

How can such things happen?  It’s really not so hard.  Everyone of us grows up with a kind of ideology inherited from family and society.  Sometimes, often as youth and young adults, we embrace a different ideology or a variant of the one we knew.

In Canada, most live with an ideology that human rights are for all, that democracy should rule, and that the secular law is more important that the laws of religion.  We believe in capitalism and cable TV and the right to drive cars and that no one has the power to tell us how to live our lives.

Within Unitarian Universalism we pursue a principle-based ideology that affirms the worth and dignity of every person, the idea of justice, equity and compassion and the notion that all religious teachings deserve respectful consideration.  It is consistent with much of Canadian ideology.

That way of life is not in imminent danger.  Liberal ideology rules,  but what would happen to us if the Islamist view – or for that matter the alt right views espoused by some of the current Conservative party leadership candidates – gained ascendancy in Canada?  How long would it be before some of us started forming underground enclaves of ‘don’t tread on me’ fanatics?

Islamists believe they are in a war of survival.  A noisy, disaffected minority feel that this justifies violence.  And that, in broad strokes is why people are blowing themselves up.  Islamist ‘martyrs’ exist because extremist leaders take young conflicted people in a stressed culture and teach them (in person or online) a corrupted version of Islam, one that offers a glorious way to live – and die their faith.

So where is the hope?

For starters, we in the west must take responsibility for our part in this morality play.  We have to take a very hard look at the issues and concerns of conservative Islam. We have to assume that the angry but non-violent folks have legitimate issues.  If we want peace, we have understand their concerns.

And what might this require?  Peace will almost certainly demand a change in political alliances and economic realities.  The west will have to stop exploiting Middle Eastern oil and propping up corrupt governments.  We will have to deal fairly with the people of these nations.

Here’s a tougher one for us:  We have to acknowledge their right to preserve their culture and faith.  Some of that might won’t sit well because it does not mesh with our ideologies.  Peace may require that we swallow our outrage and show patience while waiting for their understanding of human rights to evolve.

We will have to address the poverty not of the oil rich nations, but of the large numbers of disaffected have nots within those countries. That said, I fear that westerners will want to impose a definition of ‘ending poverty’ is.  That has been our habit, and imposed solutions  usually fail.  The end – or more realistically, the reduction of poverty in any nation must be implemented by that nation and culture.  The west can help, but the nation involved must decide what it will become.  The same is true for the end of inequality, racism, sexism or any other social ill.  We cannot impose solutions.  It is a strategy doomed to fail.

And we at home have to lose our fear of the Muslim ‘other’.  That will happen. Mahan Mirza, at the time a student, commented in the New York Times, “The more Americans see Muslims who speak English with a North American accent, Muslims who were born and raised here, who understand this culture, the more it will cease to be a foreign phenomenon…”

These are small steps, but they are the steps that show that moderate Muslims are marshalling their resources and starting to drown out extremist rantings. If we support the people trying to reclaim Islam – and by support I mean mostly promote a climate of acceptance for their faith, we will be promoting peace.

As a small gesture in this congregation, today we reveal our new banner which reads “We support our Muslim neighbours” in English and Arabic.  And each of us is called upon to do similar small gestures.  Smile at people who look different from you, smile at their children. Speak up if you see someone speaking ill of them.  If you have Muslim neighbours where you live, let them know they are welcome and they can turn to you.

Cultures are not changed by government or by law.  They are changed by people, one to one.  Be welcoming, be generous.  Demonstrate that your religion, whatever it may be, is also a religion of peace.