‘Is there something about Islam?’, a panel discussion chaired by Jim Al Khalili, was advertised as focusing on religious extremism, questioning if it was particular to Islam or found equally in other religions. As it turned out, there was so much to say on the topic of Islamic extremism there was no time to direct the discussion towards other religions. With all four speakers being from a Muslim background this was perhaps not surprising.
Islamic extremism is, of course, a hot topic which has been at the forefront of current affairs for some years now. Yet there is one aspect of it which is rarely addressed and that is the psychological makeup of the extremists themselves.
‘These are bad people,’ said George W. Bush. This kind of simplistic approach is no help in getting at the underlying motivation of extremists. Neither does it provide any explanation for the behaviour of suicide bombers. ‘Bad’ people presumably behave badly because their bad behaviour gives them gratification. With death as the immediate result of their behaviour there is no gratification to be had for suicide bombers, unless the kind of afterlife in which they profess to believe turns out to be real. But this scenario then puts their motivation into a different category, that of religious conviction.
In fact, it’s always seemed to me that there is an internal consistency to the logic of religious fundamentalists – whether Islamic, Christian or any other – which is lacking in the less fervent believers. If they believe that God wants everyone to belong to their religion, and that non-believers will be condemned to hell, it makes sense to try to force people to convert. This was probably the reasoning behind much of the savage cruelty involved in the 500 years of Catholic inquisition.
If we compare Islamic fundamentalists with the present-day Christian fundamentalists it might seem easy to dismiss the latter as harmless as they don’t appear to be threatening people or trying to kill them because they don’t share their beliefs. But the two groups share the same concept of an irrationally vengeful and punitive God (as represented in the Christian Zionist End-Times scenario, for example). Is there really all that much difference between people who kill and torture others for not sharing their religion and people who worship a God who will kill and torture for exactly the same reason? Are fundamentalists of this type in the grip of a mass psychosis? If so, how can it be counteracted? Certainly not by military means which, like incorrect weeding, will serve only to strengthen the growth.
It would have been interesting to get the views of Maajid Nawaz (one of the WHC speakers) on this. As a former member of Hizb ut-Tahrir, and having spent time in jail with other extremists, he could surely provide some penetrating insights into the fundamentalist psyche.