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Multiple manifestations of one faith?

16 January 2015

We must choose between good and bad religion, argues Richard Sudworth

IN THE aftermath of last week's atrocity in Paris, a familiar pattern of exchanges was being played out in social media. For some, the murders of the policemen and staff at the offices of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo exemplified all that is wrong with religion. Those who subscribe to this view would seek to keep religion out of the public sphere, reducing it to an eccentric, private pursuit. Once you let an odd hobby, and its awkward narratives, costumes and rituals, encroach on another's world, you are in for trouble - or so the argument goes.

Alternatively, there has been a rallying cry for those who would distance violence and oppression from religion entirely. The former nun and popular historian of religions Dr Karen Armstrong is a notable exponent of this position. The main religions would have nothing to do with the senseless violence of the kind witnessed in Paris. For her, there is a pristine unity underlying the main faiths which is essentially peaceful.

The debate is sharpened by the fact that this latest act of terrorism occurred in France, with its largely secular constitution, exemplified by the 2011 ban on wearing the niqab (veil) in public spaces. Already, Germany has been witnessing its own growing protests against the supposed Islamification of German culture and society. Incidents of Islamophobia in Britain are on the rise, and there is a real danger that we shore up a vision of Europe which discriminates against its Muslim presence. Here in Birmingham, my Muslim neighbours are feeling the anguish and insecurity that come from apparently having to condemn actions that have appalled them as much as they have the rest of society.

I am not convinced, though, that Dr Armstrong's rationale is necessary for a just response to extremist violence which galvanises all faiths and stands with the vast majority of peace-loving Muslims. To judge the murderers in Paris as "non-Muslim" would pit one group's version of "true" Islam against another's. This risks the perception of a monolithic Islam, which would be inhibitive of the genuine diversity that does exist. The reality is, surely, that there are a multitude of "Islams", as there are a multitude of "Christianities".

Conversely, those tempted to reclaim a Christian continent, protected against the encroachment of religious violence by cordons sanitaires, need to be reminded of the Christian origins of anti-Semitism in Europe, which culminated in the Shoah. Christian interpretation of certain biblical texts fostered the idea that the Jewish people were guilty of the crime of deicide, and provided fertile soil for pogroms in earlier centuries, and Nazism in the most recent.

Religious people do bad things, both in the pursuit of their religion, and from sources and traditions within those religions. All faiths, and indeed atheist ideologies, too, have their fair share of skeletons in their cupboards. Paradoxically, the logic that all religions are essentially peaceful leads us to a vision of public life which is Godless, and thus more like the counter-narrative of secularism: religions cease to be problematic, awkward or contentious. What urgently needs enlivening is the debate about what constitutes "good" and "bad" religion.

Religious extremism reminds us of something important that Christianity acknowledges about the human condition: we are all capable of extraordinary violence. Whether the Creator God would have anything to do with that violence is another debate altogether.

The Revd Dr Richard Sudworth is a parish priest in Birmingham and Tutor in Anglican Theology at the Queen's Foundation, Birmingham.

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