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Forging a response to Islamic extremism

25 January 2013

"YOU are Algerians and Muslims: you have nothing to fear. We're looking for Christians, who kill our brothers in Mali and Afghanistan and plunder our resources." The words of one of the gunmen to a guard at the In Amenas gas field cannot be read without a chilling of the blood. The association of Christianity with Western aggression, and the murderous intent, are a world away from the well-meaning and often successful attempts at interfaith understanding. There is obviously a limit to what can be done to turn a heavily armed ideological fanatic. All one can do is attempt to limit the harm that such people can do, so that further generations do not inherit their prejudices.

The brutal events in Algeria, along with the French intervention in Mali, have coincided with two statesmanlike commentaries on the response to terrorism that is inspired by religious or political ideology. The Prime Minister was correct when he spoke in the Commons on Monday of the need for patience in his reference to the Algerian hostage crisis. "The building blocks of democracy - the rule of law and the independence of the judiciary, the rights of minorities, free media and association, and a proper place in society for the army - which are a big part of the solution, all take a long time to put in place."

Across the Atlantic, President Barack Obama was even more specific in his inaugural address: "We will support democracy from Asia to Africa, from the Americas to the Middle East, because our interests and our conscience compel us to act on behalf of those who long for freedom. And we must be a source of hope to the poor, the sick, the marginalised, the victims of prejudice - not out of mere charity, but because peace in our time requires the constant advance of those principles that our common creed describes: tolerance and opportunity, human dignity and justice."

Putting these principles into practice will be difficult for both leaders, especially when they face such severe challenges in domestic politics, and work for an electorate that is jealous of its politicians' attention and suspicious of any overseas spending. In such a situation, when pragmatism fails, religion can provide the motivation to strive for international trust. But it must not be a toothless religion, silent when corporate business arrangements amount to the "plundering of resources" complained of by the gunman; or inactive in the face of suffering, such as that of the refugees from the Syrian conflict. The root cause of much of the instability in Africa and the Middle East is injustice. Until that troubles the moderates as much as it does the extremists, there will be no progress towards peace.

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