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