When Americans express concern about religious extremism and violence, they almost always are thinking about Islam.
This is despite former President George W Bush claiming that the war against Iraq was “God’s will”, the growing threat of white Christian militias in America and Christian evangelicals who believe Israel’s conquest of Palestine is justified by biblical prophecy.
I have a PhD in comparative religions and spent extensive time studying both the Abrahamic faiths and the religions of India.
All of the world’s major religions have groups and individuals who use religion to justify violence and extreme political objectives.
India’s ruling party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) headed by Narendra Modi, rode to power on a wave of extreme Hindu nationalism.
Modi was for years banned from the US for his role in fomenting anti-Muslim riots, which took the lives of over 1,000.
In Sri Lanka, Buddhist militias complain Muslims are occupying Buddhist lands and have sworn to wipe out the Muslim threat.
Christianity has not been immune from these extremist currents.
Look at the Crusades, or more recently the way Christian religious language has been used to mobilise support for wars.
This month Washington hosted Christians United for Israel (CUFI), which believes supporting Israel is essential to carrying out God’s plan – entailing the in-gathering of the Jews and their eventual conversion to Christianity, leading to the Battle of Armageddon and the return of Jesus.
Speakers at this event, including the US Secretary of State and the Vice-President, spoke openly of fulfilling “God’s plan”.
Then there’s extreme Jewish nationalism, expressed by influential Israeli parties and political and religious leaders.
Prominent rabbis have argued that because “the souls of Gentiles aren’t human”, the commandment “thou shall not kill” doesn’t apply to them.
The weaponisation of religion occurs when faith is used to validate violence against others.
This is evident in the case of Sri Lanka’s Buddhist militias, Modi’s incitement against Muslims, Al Qaeda’s or Hamas’ acts of violence against innocents, and Jewish settlers who torment Palestinians in occupied territories (one prominent faction is called Gush Emunim, “the band of the faithful”).
We must understand, expose and combat politicisation and weaponisation of religion.
No religion, as they have evolved over time, justifies the slaughter of innocents, the violation of their rights or dispossession of their properties – not in the teachings of the Buddha, the Vedas, the Upanishads, the Mosaic Law or the prophetic vision of Isaiah, the Quran or the teachings of Jesus.
Those who use religious quotes to validate an ideology or behaviour do so to validate their politics. Blame must be cast on groups and leaders who exploit the power of religious language to advance a political agenda.
But we need to identify why some join these groups and follow these leaders.
Polling and sociological literature point to several factors, including loss of control that individuals experience due to severe economic and political stress and social dislocation.
This may be due to the shock of urbanisation and rapid social change. It may be economic recession, the loss of employment and uncertainty about the future.
There are instances where prolonged disenfranchisement and discrimination result in individuals experiencing deep alienation.
In all these situations, individuals become easy prey for leaders or movements that exploit fear and insecurity.
By couching their message with familiar religious language, these groups and leaders may call for a return to the “old ways” – from where we get the term “fundamentalism”.
They will denounce the “sinful” present while glorifying a “perfect past”, often demonising another group or way of life blamed for present problems.
The “other” may be a vulnerable minority, an external foe, an emerging group within society or lifestyle changes.
This pattern holds true in every extremist movement I have studied, whether past or present, from the West or the East.
Dr James J Zogby