The recent speech by the Prime Minister on the threat of extremism, violent and non-violent, and his five year plan to deal with the threat, has attracted plenty of commentary; but now attention has turned elsewhere, and the subject may well be forgotten until the next terrorist outrage brings it forcibly to our attention once more.
The Prime Minister outlined various practical measures to combat extremism, such as policing the Internet, and giving parents the power to have their children’s passports withdrawn should they suspect them of preparing to run off to Syria. But the problem goes much deeper than this.
First of all, it is not a political problem. This should be blindingly obvious. Ever since the rich, well-educated and privileged Egyptian, Mohamed Atta, flew his plane into the World Trade Centre, it should have been clear to all people that this is not an insurgency fuelled by perceived inequalities or fired by some deeply felt sense of injustice.
Indeed, Osama bin Laden himself was from a very rich family. Talk of social deprivation, and draining the swamp, misses the point. Again, concentrate the mind on the perpetrators of the 7/7 outrages in London ten years ago. These were not socially excluded young men. One was a teaching assistant, married with a young child; another a keen cricketer. These were people who were as integrated as most into our society. The 9/11 bombers were people at home in America, as, once, was Bin Laden himself. Of course, they hated America and wanted to destroy it, just as the 7/7 bombers hated Britain and wanted to destroy it: but this was not a feeling motivated by a political grievance, it was rather fuelled by religious extremism.
The Islamist terrorists are not like Lenin, rather they are like Savonarola, or maybe like the Cathars, or like Fra Dolcino. They are religious fanatics, not political ideologues. Ergo, and this is not the first time this has been said, the solution is not political, it has to be religious. Mr Cameron, by offering political solutions, is barking up the wrong tree.
Religious extremists, back in the day, tended to be Christians, and often Catholics. Our rulers then recognised this for what it was, and took the appropriate measures. The Cathars, Dolcinians, the followers of Savonarola, all were defeated by a combination of hard power (often fiercely brutal) and soft power, namely good theology, the sort of theology that shows the world that spirit and matter are not in perpetual conflict, and neither are faith and reason. The peace of Europe was in effect secured by the theology of men like Saint Thomas Aquinas. Without his work, we would, I suspect, have been condemned to everlasting strife. It was after all Aquinas who legitimised secular power, following Saint Augustine.
Again, in the troubled past, our rulers quite often would call theological conferences in order to try and iron out differences that would otherwise spill over into violence. These conferences are usually judged to be complete failures. One thinks of the Colloquy of Poissy, called by Catherine de’ Medici and the Hampton Court Conference convoked by James I. But of course something like Poissy was always doomed to fail in that it aimed too high, in trying to bring about reunion between Catholic and Protestant. But the fundamental idea – that talking about religion is a much safer pastime that fighting about it – is surely a good one.
The sixteenth century was, in comparison to our own time, obsessed with religion. Nowadays religious discussion has been more or less driven out of the public square. Intelligent discussion of religion is more or less impossible, as Tim Farron has found. And yet more than ever, we need to discuss religion, and we need above all to discuss our idea of God.
Funnily enough, we need to discuss the very question with which Channel Four News ambushed Mr Farron. The Catholic Church has a nuanced teaching on sin that is best not reduced to the sort of sound bite a television interview elicits. But the key question is this: how does God deal with sinners? How does he want us to deal with sinners? What punishment is due to sin in this world and in the next? It should be apparent that religious people hold widely differing beliefs on these matters, and that some of these beliefs should be robustly challenged. Moreover, some of these religiously held beliefs can only be challenged within the framework of a religious discussion. To claim that all religion is absurd, or that all believers are fundamentalists, is to make any such conversation very difficult.
What our government could usefully do is convoke colloquies of suitably qualified religious people of all faiths to discuss some of the challenges that Islamic extremism poses to all believers. By examining the religious basis of religious extremism – which is very shaky indeed – we could undermine ISIS much more effectively than any bombing campaign.