By: Hrishik Roy
What do you possibly imagine when I use the term “religious extremists”? Well, possibly you could be thinking of the Crusaders, RSS and even its most cancerous form in recent times ISIS. Now, of course, these are more than legitimate examples of religious extremism as these groups not only think and come to the most genocidal convictions of their faith but even act upon those convictions. But, I would like to challenge the commonly-held notion that it is only those who act upon their intents who are “religious extremists.”
Rather, I think that individuals who choose to hold beliefs which infringe upon the rights of other people or set up a political system which is exclusively dependent on any theological doctrine should be considered religious extremists too. This includes people who want a theocracy without an essence of doubt. Now, why do I make this claim? Why do I want to stamp people with an obnoxious label as “religious extremists” just for the sake of “thought-crime” i.e. only for their intents and not deeds?
The answer is because such thoughts or intentions and their subsequent propagation have consequences. To delve further into this, I want you to think about the people leaving Bangladesh to escape for Afghanistan after the Taliban takeover. What do you think instigates these individuals to commit such atrocities? It is the tacit acceptance of the Taliban’s actions by the general masses. Now, of course, not every Muslim agrees with everything the Taliban does and indeed followers of the faith are not monolithic and I do not intend to paint all Muslims or Hindus or Christians to be extremists here. Please hold your horses before accusing me of a hasty generalization.
However, here are a few facts I want you to consider: About one-third of the population of my country (Bangladesh) thinks that it is absolutely morally legitimate to kill apostates as in someone who has denounced the religion in public. This may come off as shocking but the figures are even more shocking in different countries according to Pew Research Centre: 60% of the population in Egypt, one-third again in Malaysia and I could go on from here. As a matter of fact, there are about ten countries in this world who have this practice embedded in their law. But the fact of the matter is that there is indeed an inherent problem here- the problem of tacit extremism. This implicit acceptance of extremism is what in fact fuels the people towards more extreme religious interpretation.
While yes, liberal Muslims will claim “That is not real Islam,” and that may be a valid claim because the scriptures are always open to interpretation. But, who really represents Islam then? The liberal Muslims living in the West who think that there is nothing wrong with gay people and ex-Muslims, or the scholars and theologians of Al-Azhar University who have spent almost their entire life studying the scriptures and its practices and want to execute apostates and stone gay people? As a matter of fact, the scholarly consensus among all four schools of Sunni Islamic thought are very clear that both apostasy is to be punished by the death penalty.
Part of the problem here to begin with is that this is not like just one whacky Texan who wants to kill people over not accepting Christ; rather this is more than a significant part of the population who want to establish a theocracy while squashing the rights of minority groups. Yes, they might not explicitly support the Taliban but they do hold more than very problematic principles which they derive from scripture as mentioned above and those principles do align with that of the Taliban.
The only wall of separation between religious nutjobs killing my non-religious friends over blasphemy or imprisoning them are the current laws which prevent them from doing so. These laws are often broken in the name of protecting the divine- as was done by the killers of Avijit Roy and other bloggers. Now you can imagine how worse it will be in a theocracy or a state imposing religious laws; just take a look at Pakistan, Egypt or KSA- all three of which are a prison of a closed society and fit right into the definition of a Hobbesian state.
If individuals in such large masses hold such viewpoints, it is fairly obvious that the number of people who act upon those will also be greater which is what we essentially tend to see such as in the killing of the French teacher Samuel Paty for the “crime” of showing blasphemous cartoons to students. The killer received massive support all across my country with millions going out into the streets to riot against the French government’s freedom of expression and boycotts were planned out.
What liberal Muslims in the West, such as Mehdi Hassan, do not realize is that it is not just a fringe minority of the population who think that it is okay to kill blasphemers but rather this is a large chunk of the population and the radix malorum is the absolutist nature of the faith itself based on two impossible ideas- the perfect book and the perfect man. A massive part of the problem is that the canonical scriptures are mostly believed to be historically accurate word to word and therefore any objection or bad-mouthing of those books is by definition profane and thus the absolute nature often prevents or discourages criticism by Muslim reformers by framing such criticisms out. Unless that source of extremism itself is acknowledged, it is impossible to solve the problem through denialism.
The reason of this denialism from liberal Muslims can also be partially attributed to the rise of anti-Muslim bigotry in the post 9/11 period and the large scale demonization of Muslims. Due to the hostility propagated by the Western right-wing (who actually agree with the right-wing Islamic theocrats on various issues such as marriage equality: just under different frameworks), any criticism of the religion and the condemnation of the actions of its adherents have been deemed to be racist and thus disassociated from the faith.
However, the fact is that people do hold largely problematic views about apostates and simply saying that the problem is not the scripture which actively condones hostility towards gays and apostates is like saying Catholic Church hierarchs had no connection in leading Medieval peasants to slaughter Jews and Muslims during the crusades. Saying that Islamism (a political movement to establish an Islamic theocracy) has nothing to do with Islam (the broader religion), while the former directly derives its precept from the latter, is categorically misleading.
A very similar case can also be made out of Hinduism which in more recent times has also gone onto become overtly cancerous under the widely celebrated banner of Hindutva- the ideal Hindu state which diminishes the rights of gender minorities and lower castes through the implementation of a primitive and rigid social hierarchy based on scriptures such as Manusmriti. It needs to be understood that BJP and RSS are also “religious extremists” according to the definition I am arguing for and need to be held accountable for the atrocities they instigate accordingly. A lot of liberal Hindus also do not understand that these precepts are directly derived from scriptures and thus fail to acknowledge that such a problem may exist. However, burying your head in the sand does nothing more than keep the problem unchecked.
The reason why I initially argued for the expansion of the definition of “religious extremists” to include people who passively support extremism is because it helps us to realize and track the actual sources of these extreme beliefs and admit them accordingly. Acknowledging that religious fundamentalism is not just a myth but rather communities can and do hold bad viewpoints at large and not dismissing the experiences of those who suffered- dissenters and gender or sexual minorities – can help us go a long way in achieving peace and religious harmony.
BBC News. (2020, October 27). Huge Bangladesh rally calls for boycott of French products. https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-54704859
Monk, P. (2016, August 12). Muslims in the West must reject al-Azhar imam’s apostasy views. The Austalian.
Some of the rulings on apostasy and apostates. (n.d.). Islam Question & Answer. Retrieved September 14, 2021, from
Wormald, B. (2013, April 30). Chapter 1: Beliefs About Sharia. Pew Research Center’s Religion & Public Life Project.