Ahmed Zaoui gave a lecture on "The roots of religious extremism and our response" in Wellington yesterday. I didn't get to go, but it seems appropriate to review it, given what happened in London last night.
Zaoui draws a distinction between religious fundamentalism (adherence to the fundamental doctrines of one's faith) and extremism. The former is characterised by (in the words of David Forte):
a reliance on the will of God as the source of truth, typically codified in a particular source (scripture), a relative disparagement of the role of reason, a tendency towards literalism, a reaction against foreign or modern elements or accretions, and a duality in one’s eschatological conception of existence (good/evil, spirit/matter, God/Satan, us/them, certainty of triumph/imminence of defeat.)
Extremists share all of this, but in addition are characterised by
a view that one monopolises the truth, intolerance to diversity and difference, and violent rhetoric which excludes ‘the other’
So, all religious extremists are fundamentalists, but not all fundamentalists are extremists - which maps fairly well to the reality. Most Christian fundamentalists wouldn't hurt a fly, and would be horrified at the idea of murder in god's name. It's the latter toxic memes, building on that Manichean duality, which if strongly held, provide the impetus for violence.
It's also worth noting that this bears more than a passing resemblance to common accounts of fascism, partiularly that of Umberto Eco. The difference is simply one of a religious, rather than nationalist, motivation.
Zaoui makes the case that despite the claims of western Islamophobes, Islam is not inherently extremist. Instead, his central thesis is that the religious extremism which gives rise to some forms of terrorism is born out of political repression. He illustrates this with the example of Sayyid Qutb, the founder of modern Islamism, who provided the intellectual framework for Islamic extremists' rejection of secular government. His radicalisation was a direct consequence of his persecution and mistreatment at the hands of the Egyptian government. His modern popularity and influence are partly consequences of that mistreatment (it provides a certain cachet among the young) - but also a consequence of the lack of democracy in the Islamic world. Dissatisfaction and oppression drive people to extremism, and Islamic socieites are no different from Western ones in that regard.
How should we respond to the threat of violent extremism? Zaoui's solution is to tackle the problem at its source:
Extremists cannot function effectively and credibly in an open democratic society. Extremists ideologies only carry weight when proponents are seen to be marginalised and persecuted. Exposed to the full glare of public scrutiny and debate, extremist ideologies tend to be moderated and ‘absorbed’ into the system in the interests of pragmatic political compromise.
Or they simply wither and die, or are reduced to a tiny minority incapable of causing serious trouble. The National Front are a perfect example of this - in an open society where their ideas are subjected to criticism, they cannot gain a foothold.
What is needed then is a commitment to greater democracy, and to fostering a dialogue on the shape of modern Islamic socieites. It may take longer, but will be far more effective than tanks and bombs and further repression.