Religion does not cause conflict, unlike fundamentalism
The fourth of this year’s Westminster Faith Debates took place on Wednesday evening, during which a panel of experts discussed the issue of religious fundamentalism and its tendency to dominate religious discourse.
Former Home Secretary Charles Clarke opened the discussion by noting that it is often difficult to negotiate between hardline and more moderate religious positions given the media’s propensity to give “greater authority to those who are more dramatic”.
“It’s a question of who buys the media debate…Media attention to fundamentalists leads to misunderstanding of the nature of religion, its beliefs and practices,” he said. affirmed.
“This is a very important subject because it impacts the way religion is perceived by society… We need a greater understanding”, he concluded, before giving the floor to Dr Masooda Bano from the University of Oxford.
Dr. Bano began by unpacking the language of the question posed and argued that assuming that those religious people with radical beliefs have a propensity for violent conflict is not a helpful starting point.
“Violence and conflict are not about religion, they are about oppression and political marginalization,” she said, while adding that the “otherworldly” rewards offered by religion can sometimes encourage believers to engage in “sacrificial” violence.
She did, however, agree with Clarke in his assertion that those with moderate religious views are often too quiet in religious discourse. “Moderates hardly talk. They have to come forward,” she insisted.
His comments were later backed up by Maajid Nawaz, a former member of an Islamist revolutionary group and now chairman of a counter-extremist think tank, who also argued that religion is not the cause of the conflict, but rather those within a religion who choose to participate in the “social dehumanization of the other” for not having adhered to its norms of religiosity”.
He insisted that the notion of fundamentalism is different from conservative practice and that all religions are open to interpretation, but that it is important not to “leave the debate to the extremists”, arguing that in in doing so, we “weaken moderate voices”.
This idea was also taken up by Sir Tony Baldry, who claimed that there is a wide range of beliefs in all religions, as there are in any social group. He suggested that asking the original question in a different way might be, “To what extent should the tolerant tolerate the intolerant?”. He stressed the importance of “negotiating consensus between different groups”.
Peter Herriot, a self-proclaimed “Liberal Methodist,” added to the debate his belief that every social system, and therefore every religion, lies somewhere on a continuum, with integration at one end and differentiation at the other.
Fundamentalists, he argued, are keen on differentiating themselves in order to “create an environment conducive to conflict” and to reinforce their identity as a powerful means of motivating their supporters.
This led to the suggestion by debate chair Linda Woodhead that the panel members held opposing views, with Bano and Nawaz claiming that religion is not the cause of the conflict, and Herriot stating that the conflict is in fact central to the conduct of fundamentalism.
The three panel members were quick to counter this argument, however, again calling attention to the importance of not using “religion” and “fundamentalism” interchangeably.
“Religion does not cause conflict, unlike fundamentalism,” Nawaz said.
A question and answer session then raised issues such as the UK government’s role in the portrayal of religion in the media, our obsession with fundamentalism rather than the religious majority, and the role of justice in the international debate.
The panel concluded that greater dialogue is needed in order to open discussion and find ways to understand different streams of religious thought. Genuine engagement and intelligent debate have been heralded as key to weeding out future conflict, as pundits have argued that public understandings of fundamentalism and religion are often flawed, only further complicating the global discourse.
“It is extremely important to disentangle the role of religion from political, social and economic factors,” Clarke noted.
“The true role of religion has been treated extremely vaguely…the dialogue is incredibly important.”