Islamist “hyper-extremism” is not only destroying the multi-faith ecology of the Middle East but also threatening parts of Africa and the West, according to a new report. The latest edition of Religious Freedom in the World, a global survey published by the Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need (ACN), identifies ISIS as the main source of a campaign described as genocidal by the US Secretary of State, John Kerry. Victims include Shia Muslims as well as Christians and Yazidis.
The report focuses on the Syrian civil war and the regional conflict to which it has given rise. Formerly diverse communities in the Middle East are described as becoming “increasingly mono-religious”. The spread of extremist Islam is also said to represent a threat to diversity among Muslims, “with widespread reports of moderates – including from within the same branch of Islam – being forced out in their thousands for refusing to accept ISIS and other hardline groups”. The report ascribes the menace in part to growing Sunni–Shia rivalry in several hotbeds of conflict beyond Syria and Iraq.
More broadly, ACN confirms established data showing that the greatest curbs on religious freedoms in Africa, the Middle East and South Asia take place in Muslim-majority countries. This pattern parallels problems with democracy, civil liberties and economic freedom. In recent years one survey after another, from organisations including the Pew Forum and the Freedom House think tank, have shown that at least a dozen of the 20 most “unfree” societies on earth are majority Muslim.
Yet many curbs on religious practice in other regions have nothing to do with Islamist intolerance. Religious Freedom in the World looks at 196 countries, noting substantial discrimination against Christians in communist societies including China and North Korea; or India, where Hindu nationalists view Christianity as a foreign import; or Burma, where Buddhist chauvinism against both Muslims and Christians has long been a concern.
The survey also notes a sharp rise in extremism among Muslims living a long way from the Middle East – especially in Bangladesh, Indonesia, Kenya, Libya, Niger, Pakistan, Sudan, Tanzania and Yemen. Of the 11 Muslim-majority countries with persistently poor records on religious freedom, seven – Afghanistan, Iraq, Nigeria, the Palestinian Territories, Saudi Arabia, Somalia and Syria – are identified as tolerating anti-Christian discrimination at a state level, side by side with oppression at the grassroots.
“Hyper-extremism”, defined by ACN as entailing a willingness to engage in torture, mass murder and rape, is shown to be exacerbating the refugee crisis around the Mediterranean.
The report includes graphic case studies. One tells of a teenage Yazidi girl in northern Iraq who was raped by a member of ISIS and forced to watch the murder of her parents. Another chronicles the case of Asad Shah, the Glasgow-based shopkeeper and Ahmadiyya Muslim who was killed earlier this year by a Sunni, after he sent an Easter greeting to his Christian customers on Facebook. Another details the slaughter and maiming of customers at a kosher grocery in Paris in January 2015 after the mass killing of staff at the Charlie Hebdo satirical magazine.
Based near Frankfurt but operating in Britain and many other countries, ACN is renowned for the meticulousness of its research, an avoidance of polemics, and for its provision of practical aid to displaced persons. I benefited greatly from the expertise of its staff while researching my book Christianophobia.
Among the larger questions prompted by Religious Freedom in the World is the role of theology vis-à-vis politics in the spread of violent jihadism. A narrative much repeated by Western politicians entails a sharp distinction between Islamic piety on the one hand, and Islamism as a religio-political ideology on the other. This view strikes me as simplistic. But so, too, is the opposite standpoint, regularly voiced by some neoconservative pundits, which sees Islam as inherently disposed towards violence.
The truth lies somewhere in between. Both the Bible and the Koran contain apparently barbarous passages. That is why Jewish commentators devised ways of reinterpreting those passages in Hebrew Scripture that represent God as vengeful or bloodthirsty.
An allied process unfolded in the Islamic tradition. These moves were soundly motivated. You don’t represent an entire landscape by plucking verses out of context like leaves off a tree. On the other hand, Christians and others are right to see Islam as a faith setting great store by victory conceived in worldly terms.
A vital but chronically under-reported point about ISIS is that its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, bases his vision on early Islamic eschatology. He and his followers believe that the end of the world is imminent, and divide history into five stages. The first involved the rule of Mohammed. Then came the time of the caliphate, when caliphs ruled according to Mohammed’s teachings. After this came the era of “benign kingship” obtained by force; then the era of “oppressive kingship”. In the final stage, according to this model, the caliphate will rise again before the end of the world.
From this perspective, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk’s winding up of the Ottoman caliphate in 1923 marked the end of the third of the five phases. Since then, ISIS argues, the Islamic world has been suffering the injustice of oppressive kingship, whether at the hands of dictators such as Saddam Hussein or the Assads, or of impious monarchs.
A common assumption among commentators of left and right links the rise of ISIS to the American-led invasion of Iraq in 2003. Though partly correct, this view also strikes me as partial. A decade of economic sanctions – the very policy advocated by opponents of the Gulf War in 1990 – had already reduced Iraqis to poverty and despair. Unicef estimates that 500,000 children died and half the infant population in Iraq was suffering from diarrhoea by the turn of the millennium. Millions of adults also suffered grievous consequences when power shortages caused medical equipment to break down.
By the time Saddam was overthrown, many had already turned to Islamism as an answer to their anguish – a point that emerges with force in Patrick Cockburn’s new book Chaos and Caliphate. The paradoxical corollary of this is that ISIS has emerged from both pro- and anti-war policies in the West.
The foreword to Religious Freedom in the World is by Fr Jacques Mourad, a Syriac Catholic priest kidnapped by ISIS in Syria last year and held for five months. He says that good religion offers the only adequate response to corrupt expressions of faith:
Our world teeters on the brink of total catastrophe as extremism threatens to wipe out all trace of diversity in society. But if religion teaches us anything it is the value of the human person, the need to respect each other as a gift from God. So surely, it must be possible both to have a passionate faith in one’s religious beliefs as well as to respect the right of others to follow their conscience, to live out their own response to the love of God who made us all.
That is the only way to cure the plague of “hyper-extremism”.
This article first appeared in the November 25 2016 issue of The Catholic Herald. To read the magazine in full, from anywhere in the world, go here