The Conservative government in the United Kingdom is cracking down on violent extremism.
In a July keynote speech PM David Cameron unveiled the government’s five-year strategy for tackling what he calls ”extremist ideology” – supposedly subversive doctrines that may even go as far as ”to destroy nation-states to invent its own barbaric realm”. Such doctrines, according to Cameron and his government, include violence as an integral part of this ”sick worldview”, as well as hostility towards ”basic liberal values such as democracy, freedom and sexual equality”.
While not wanting to demonize people of any specific background, Cameron’s speech focused ”on tackling Islamist extremism” in particular. He sought to ”confront and defeat this poison”.
Just recently Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond chimed in and warned of ”a common but shadowy enemy: extremists who seek to hijack Islam to impose their own perverted agenda by fear and by the sword; who reject all norms of civilized behavior; who challenge all structures of established order.”
Struggling against this enemy “we have to tackle all forms of extremism, not just violent extremism”, Hammond argued. That means the government wants powers to curtail an extremist even if one has not broken laws or incited violence.
Hammond also warned Britain of complacency with non-violent extremism, being ”too anxious about causing offence instead of standing up for what is right and tackling head on the radicalizers and the extremists peddling their messages of hatred and division”.
While extremist ideology and violence perpetrated in its name is certainly a cause for concern, there are good reasons, however, to be worried about Downing Street’s rhetoric. Anti-extremism policy in the United Kingdom is premised on a problematic understanding of religion and its relationship to violence as well as a misunderstanding of what ”ideology” is and who holds one. Since its purpose is to ”tackle both parts of the creed – the non-violent and violent” – we can expect counter-extremism becoming a cause for violence in itself – if it is not that already.
Measures aimed to target non-violent extremists threaten civil liberties. The Muslim Council of Britain worries about legitimate dissent in general. Anti-extremist efforts at the universities risk excluding religion together with radical thinkers and thought from campuses. Mere attempts at compiling a ”national register of faith leaders”, as some officials have suggested, for policy purposes not only abridges civil liberties, but is outright bigotry.
The United Nations and American president Obama recently did unveil a plan to wage a global war on ”ideologies” that will involve ”planetary efforts”, and if indeed something like this becomes ”the struggle of our generation”, ”the great challenge of our time”, the “battle” will inevitably become one where the British with all the other nations conscripted to the cause will attack Islamists and other fundamentalists somewhere in some way — or likely many ways — and of course we know this is an ongoing effort with a lengthy history.
But that is not religious violence, or is it?
By definition no: the purpose of so-called “counter-extremism” is purportedly to fight and defeat religious violence. Well, what ”kind” of violence is it then?
I asked this question from a colleague, attempting to criticize the beam of religious violence in the media’s eye these days, and they answered half-jokingly: ”that’s normal violence and nobody has time to think about that anymore!” Categorizing violence in this manner is symptomatic of the place religion has been appointed in the modern social imaginary. In most of the Western world religious belief is considered something that has been more or less refuted and made irrelevant by reason, science, Darwin, and so on.
For philosopher Charles Taylor, however, such a narrative is too simple and reductionist. It drastically distorts religious belief, practice, and institutions in order to fit the bounds of what Taylor calls a ”closed immanent frame” in which religion and religiosity are made to look incompatible with secular reason. In A Secular Age Taylor argues that even though the story of modernity does not necessarily need an anti-religious plot, a motivation to tell it in this manner has existed at least ever since the political entity of the state began its historical emergence. (Taylor 2007, 542.)
This is a story William T. Cavanaugh picks up in his recent The Myth of Religious Violence, which compellingly contextualizes and documents the argument that there is
no good reason for thinking that so-called religious ideologies and institutions are more inherently prone to violence than so-called secular ideologies and institutions, and that this is so because there is no essential difference between religious and secular to begin with. (Cavanaugh 2014, 487.)
Even though it is among the accepted truths of our time, the religious/secular distinction is not how things really are, but rather something Taylor calls a closed world structure that reifies a dichotomy between political society and religious faith. For Cavanaugh ”the religious/secular divide is a modern Western construction that arose as an adjunct to the rise of the modern state and the triumph of civil over ecclesiastical authorities in early modern Europe.” (Cavanaugh 2014, 489).
The familiar history of the Wars of Religion and their highly successful Westphalian settlement set the stage for temporal power to begin to manage communities with potentially radical beliefs, which continues today. In present concerns the myth represents the secular West as rational and peacemaking, while the Muslim world appears as a horde of religious fanatics: ”Their violence is religious, and therefore irrational and divisive. Our violence, on the other hand, is secular, rational, and peacemaking.” (Cavanaugh 2014, 487).
Attempts to separate religious violence from secular violence in this manner are simply incoherent (Cavanaugh 2009, 3-4). Cavanaugh’s “myth” singles out religion and helps to divert attention from the violent means and ends of the secular state.
Cavanaugh nowhere denies that religions contribute to violence. History testifies how Christianity, Islam, and other world religions have certainly been involved in violent acts and we know this goes on today. Instead Cavanaugh challenges the conventional wisdom that there is something called ”religion” that exists in all times and places, and it is essentially absolutist, divisive, and non-rational in ways that ”secular” phenomena are not (Cavanaugh 2009) , introduction.
People are no more likely to do bad deeds for a god than for a host of other secular ideologies and practices. Secular fundamentalism is an ideology that legitimates, at the same time, states’ monopoly of violence and marginalization of religious people in their territory.
Thus Islamists are fighting for the caliphate, and the British are fighting for democracy, rule of law, and a more cohesive society (or something akin to that). There is no sound reason to believe that one side has the moral high ground here. Contemporary extremism-discourse clearly associates religion with violence and in so doing privileges the secular political entity. While every rhetorical effort is made by the powers that be not to blame Islam or any other religion for violent extremism, the fact that this mantra has to be perpetually repeated by Downing Street and just about everybody else is telling.
Even though Cameron likes to talk about a successful multi-racial, multi-faith democracy, it is becoming increasingly obvious that those who speak this language have different, even radically different convictions about what public life in Britain should be.. Acknowledging this discrepancy may well be a step towards alleviating some of the quandaries caused by ”extremist ideology”. Furthermore, it becomes a necessary step towards recognizing and taking responsibility for the ”secular violence” states perpetrate today.
”Our Great British resolve faced down Hitler; it defeated Communism,” Cameron says, and now he wants the same “resolve” to overcome extremism. This counter-extremism policy is unlikely to make much of a difference, but will generate plenty of political resentment to fuel the fundamentalist fires of the future. Britain must be more sensitive to the fact that it deeply implicated in much of the extremist violence it is now struggling to curb.
Finally, the international community is putting in place judicial and extrajudicial machinery to go on and declare an all-out global war on “extremism” in the near future. There is an ominous logic in these concerted international efforts. Previous American Wars have taught us — most notoriously, the ongoing “war on drugs” now in its fifth decade as well as the international “war on terror” — is that even though the violent machines aimed at combatting such “threats” are relatively easy to assemble, they are nearly impossible to pull apart when they have gone on beyond a point where they quite obviously should have been dissembled already.
Mika Luoma-aho is head of the Department of Social Studies and a Lecturer in International Relations at the University of Lapland, Finland. He serves on the editorial board of Kosmopolis and is the author of four books, including Europe as a Living Organism: Organicist Symbolism and Political Subjectivity in the New Europe (2002).