Magazine article The Spectator

What's Extremist about Islam That Is Not Extremist about Christianity?

Magazine article The Spectator

What's Extremist about Islam That Is Not Extremist about Christianity?

Article excerpt

The parliamentary draftsmen have yet to come up with the wording, but one thing we know already. However the government defines what it now wants to prohibit - the spreading by Islamists of an 'extremist' message - the new statute will make no reference to the truth or falsity of the message. The focus of the law will be on the likely effect of the message, not on whether it is reliable, or is honestly believed.

This is not unprecedented. When during the second world war the government made it unlawful to spread alarm or despondency, it was certainly no defence to plead that in the circumstances the alarm or despondency was justified. On the contrary. Likewise, a charge of incitement to racial hatred does not admit the defence that the race pilloried is in fact hateful or that the accused believed it to be.

Laws like this must be blind to whether or not a claim may be true or even arguable. They must look only at its effect. That greatly frees our hand in identifying and proscribing the elements in any teaching which spell danger to society.

What are they? Is there a central doctrine in Islamist teaching that makes the 'mad mullahs' argument lethal? No open-minded examination of the way an extremist preacher turns a young person into a suicide bomber can avoid the conclusion that there is. It is the doctrine of eternal life.

Very, very few young men or women leading normal lives during peacetime can be persuaded to kill themselves for the general good. It is the fact that the suicide-bomber has been persuaded that in the deepest sense he will not be killing himself, but purifying his soul to begin a new life in Paradise, which gives the idea its attraction. The religious extremist's nuclear weapon is redemption.

Much has been written, some of it humorously, about the exact number of virgins a young suicide-bomber can expect to deflower on entry into Paradise, but I suspect the deadly appeal of self-destruction plays on the human mind at a deeper and more powerful level than just a simple vision of sugar-candy mountains and perpetual bliss. Guilt is a stronger driver than greed or lust.

Graham Greene would have understood this: the burden of sin, the fear of damnation, and the sense of personal shame felt by those who are persuaded that they have betrayed their God in the way they have lived their lives are enormously powerful. They eat away at contentment; they feed anxiety; they kindle a longing to be purged.

Salvation is therefore a subtler business with a more gripping purpose than simply booking a place in Heaven; and eternal life means more than a reward for virtue. To be (in the Christian metaphor) 'washed in the blood of the Lamb' answers not our appetites alone, but also some of our most profound wants and worries. This is why religion often seems to have more of a purchase on those who have become dissatisfied with the way they are living their lives than with the rest. If getting to Heaven were all, then all should be equally attracted.

A religious teacher needs to implant in his disciple two things, shame and hope: shame about the conduct hitherto of the disciple's life, and the hope of redemption and salvation.

The rest is then easy. A longing for redemption having been implanted, the teacher needs only to spell out how it may be achieved. This gives him immense power over the disciple. 'Do this to be saved,' he can teach, and his disciple has the strongest possible reason to obey. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.