In 2017, the extremists will win. The question is what moderates—both political and religious moderates—will do in response.
Extremisms of all sorts will dominate the headlines. Self-supremacists of all sorts (whether fixated on race, gender, religion, region, or nation) will seek to make maximalist claims for the sub-groupings of humanity they claim to represent. We will see more “Heil!” salutes and more mob attacks on immigrant taxi drivers.
Those who do not follow the news—the world flowing around them at an ever-increasing rate—will be pushed further into their chosen forms of amusement and distraction. Extremists will dominate the consciousness of those who are paying attention.
The neoliberal haze inaugurated in President Clinton’s 1990s—along with its pervasive sense of achievement and calm—is burning off. The polished veneer is falling away, revealing the rough structures of economy and society underneath.
Extremism has emerged from above and below.
Those who sense that their societies have been economically exploited and historically controlled by the globalist desires of western society are lashing out from below. Even the moment of possibility in the so-called Arab Spring gave way to even stronger dictatorial rule. In this moment of global change, the cosmopolitan sources of these client powers are being targeted directly through ever-changing tactics of guerilla warfare.
From above, those who sense that broad-based neoliberal economic success has allowed too many cooks into the kitchen are fomenting extremism of their own. Post-Cold War reconstruction of economies and societies in Europe and North America have created new winners and losers. What was once valued is no longer profitable on a global scale. It has been left in the past. Nostalgia for those things is a matter of life and death.
Religion—or, rather, specific interpretations of specific religious texts and traditions—pervades these new extremisms. 2017 was rung in with bombings in Baghdad and Istanbul, expressions of Islamic extremism du jour in the form of Da’esh (or ISIS or ISIL, depending on which foreign ministry briefing is reported). Former American sit-com star Roseanne Barr decided to celebrate the new year by, in part, by suggesting on Twitter that the State of Israel “use that earthquake machine in order to allow for the rebuilding of our ancient Temple in Age of Aquarius! #ZOHAR.”
The shift to 2017 means that the inauguration of the next President of the United States, Donald J. Trump, is fast approaching. With the announcement that Franklin Graham has been invited to speak, I re-posted an older blog entry of mine titled “Franklin Graham: Christian Extremist.” Because he is an extremist.
What Can be Done?
These extremisms are already dominating the consciousness of 2017. There are many others. The question for politically aware and engaged persons who are not extremists—let us call ourselves moderates—is how will we engage extremism and resist the creation of the worlds they desire? For those moderates who, like me, claim a religious tradition, how will we engage with extremists who draw their inspiration and sanction from religion (generally conceived) or specifically from our own traditions? Whether you agree or disagree with my assertion that the extremists will win in 2017, what action will you take in the face of the coming tsunami?
Moderate approaches to extremism can be profoundly unhelpful. This is especially true when religious moderates encounter religious extremists. When encountering the ingrained, self-assured, Bible-related extremism of Franklin Graham, more than one response to my re-posted blog entry was something like “Yes, he’s an extremist, but he’s not Christian.”
I was surprised to encounter this sort of argument (which is no argument at all) in a US State Department consultation about three years ago. We were there to discuss Da’esh (or ISIL in US Government parlance). One prominent American Muslim in our group insisted to the majority of Christians in the room that ISIS is not Islamic, despite Islamic being the first word of both acronyms.
Although sympathetic to the desire to distance both American Muslims from the possibility of retribution like what followed the 9/11 attacks and the essence of Islamic faith from ISIS’s heinous acts of terror, I objected. I explained that I am a Christian from Oklahoma City. I remember the terrorist bombing of the Murrah Federal Building in 1995. And since I am from that context, I know we cannot fully comprehend Timothy McVeigh without understanding Christian white nationalist attitudes. McVeigh was a white Christian extremist terrorist. I cannot deny that and do not see how the quest for understanding—the foundation of a diagnosis and, hopefully, effective treatment plan—can remove the religious element.
This is true for Franklin Graham and Timothy McVeigh alongside ISIS and Roseanne Barr. We cannot understand these figures without comprehending how religious interpretation interacts with nationalisms and anti-nationalisms alongside particular political and economic goals.
People—including scholars and analysts—with a religious commitment cannot therefore engage in this sort of dismissive argument, disavowing or informally excommunicating particular extremists from their fold. While we may disagree—often strenuously—with the religious interpretations people or groups use to justify their actions, merely waving off those interpretations only allows the actions they justify to continue with foundational justifications intact.
Religion and Extremism
What is the nature of the religious extremism we are encountering? Whether it is Muslim, Christian, or Jewish (to which I limit myself due to study and first-hand experience, though I am aware of how Hindu and Buddhist communities, among others, engage in their own struggles), religious extremism denotes a phenomenon in which religious commitments provide sanction for political goals. Religion is the secondary element in the relationship. It is sometimes more helpful, therefore, to use the phrase religiously-sanctioned extremism.
Religious extremism therefore relies on political extremism. The nature of extremism—whether religious or solely political—is necessarily subjective. One person’s extremism is another’s necessary action. I would venture that we can understand political extremism as being characterized by a totalizing ideology whose imagined or actual implementation disregards the wellbeing and political aspiration of any other group within the same space.
Consider, for instance, Barr’s comments about the destruction of the Dome of the Rock to make way for a third Jewish Temple. This is a political idea that would provide a religious imprimatur to an Israeli national desire to fully extend and exercise sovereignty over territories occupied since 1967. Such an exercise of sovereignty would remove one of the primary global symbols of Islam (the third holiest mosque) and would indicate that the Palestinian political horizon has finally and fully closed. Barr’s adoption of an extreme interpretation of Jewish tradition regarding the Temple Mount stands in contrast to many other traditions—many of them quite old and established—that would not allow such a solution to the problem of unrealized Israeli sovereignty. Extremist politics have begotten extremist religion.
The religious justifications of political extremism are not necessarily fringe. In my historical work on the sources of American Christian Zionism and popular American affinity with the State of Israel, I identified a strand of prophecy interpretation that extended back to Puritan England in the 1600s. These ideas went on to form the New England Puritan idea of American mission. This tradition, in other words, is the taproot of American identity. Christian Zionists, therefore, cannot be easily dismissed as fringe or marginal. And it is most certainly Christian.
Religiously-sanctioned extremism is extremely resilient. The theological justification for political action endures even when the political facts change. The ISIS nostalgia for a functioning caliphate relies on centuries of misremembered history and a profoundly unsophisticated interpretation of the Qur’an and other sources of Islamic tradition. But once the religious logic is in place—especially its apocalyptic eschatology (Islamic apocalyptic thought closely resembles its Christian counterpart)—even impending defeat only confirms the core commitment. Political success is nice, but not necessary. Religious justification can be immune to failure.
The blend of religion with political extremism, therefore, takes conflict into a different epistemological realm. Once sufficiently integrated, religious extremism cannot be defeated either diplomatically or militarily. It must be countered theologically. This is work beyond the proper boundaries of the state.
Thus, in this age of extremism, people within particular religious traditions have a specific responsibility. We cannot afford to dismiss particular opinions as inauthentically religious. “But they’re not really Christian” isn’t helpful for anyone. Neither is sitting in silence, watching extremist perspectives gain hold within our communities and societies.
The challenge ahead for moderates—both religious and secular—is to engage in a form of what Bishop Munib Younan, President of the Lutheran World Federation, has called “robust moderation.” Bishop Younan does not argue for any false separation between religion and politics. The source texts of Judaism, Christianity and Islam are filled with efforts to marshal religious authority for political and economic goals. When someone misrepresents the core of your tradition in order to support unjust political options—especially when they are using religion to justify oppression rather than liberation—they are most fruitfully challenged on religious rather than solely political terms.
Religion itself is not the cause of oppression. Each tradition has more than enough content to support efforts toward the flourishing of all human communities. Nevertheless, religion is often used as one of the intellectual support beams of oppression and extremism.
It is far more effective to ask questions of one’s own tradition rather than verging into someone else’s. One of the trademarks of religious extremism is a preoccupation with the threats posed by other communities with different conceptions of God and God’s will. In conversation with a person who is voicing extremist opinions, it is best to focus on a tradition you both share rather than talk about another tradition that person was attacking. Two Jews talking about Judaism, for example, is bound to be more productive than two Jews talking about either Christianity or Islam. If that becomes necessary, try to bring a Christian or Muslim into the conversation.
Those who use religious commitments in this way are often loud and self-confident; their confidence derives from being backed by political power rather than theological integrity. As a result, the support beam of religion can often be removed with a simple question or two, putting that particular claim in the context of a religion’s overall concern for humanity, including one’s neighbors, competitors, or perceived enemies.
Confronting the religious claims of religious extremism isn’t a task for PhD-holding theologians alone. It isn’t the work of muftis, sheikhs, and ordained rabbis. It is the work of people of faith whose care and concern extends beyond their small community alone. Through this collective effort within and across religious communities, the extremists may win in 2017, but their victory will not be permanent.
Note: the image accompanying this post is from the US Institute for Peace project, “Technology for Women Countering Violent Extremism.”
Rev. Robert O. Smith, PhD, is Academic Director for the Jerusalem Global Gateway of the University of Notre Dame. He is the author of More Desired than Our Owne Salvation: The Roots of Christian Zionism (Oxford, 2013), and editor, with Göran Gunner, of Comprehending Christian Zionism: Perspectives in Comparison (Fortress, 2014). He sometimes thinks about things other than Israel and Palestine.