Nov 17, 2017

Maybe it is time to start talking about Christian violent extremism

I, and many others, have often been criticised for using the term Islamist terrorism or Islamist violent extremism.  My critics have accused me of conflating Islam and terrorism and giving fodder to all the bigots and idiots out there that really do believe there is an intrinsic link between the faith of a billion and a half people and blowing things up.  The distinction between Islamist and Islamic does not always get noticed and so we are left with the admonition not to use the ‘I’ word.

Well, I have no intention of changing my habit and not just because I am old and set in my ways but because I have well-founded accepted reasons to use that term.  I will, however, at least for this column talk about something that has nothing to do with Islamist extremism – which remains nonetheless the single greatest terrorist threat in most of the world – but with another form of violent terrorism that happens to have some ties to another great monotheistic faith: Christianity (cue the outrage among Christians!).

While reading this morning’s Globe and Mail (a daily ritual) I came across this opinion piece by Timothy Garton Ash, a regular contributor: it is entitled ‘How the fight the far right‘ and is worth quoting at some length:

“Within the larger demonstration (NB in Poland recently), which this year was given the overall motto “We Want God,” there has been for some time a so-called “black block” of true radical right and fascist extremists. That block, with its giant banner reading “White Europe of Brotherly Nations,” is what most readers will have glimpsed on television. In the middle of the White Europe banner was a Celtic cross, a symbol rarely seen in Poland but used elsewhere by white supremacists. A second banner read “Deus Vult” – a rallying cry of the First Crusade and another favourite of the transnational far right. Far-right leaders from countries such as Italy, Britain, Hungary and Slovakia participated in the march.”

What I wish to focus on is the italicised portion – Deus Vult.  This is Latin for ‘God wills it’ and, as Mr. Garton Ash notes, was a phrase used to raise support for the First Crusade back in the late 11th century (it was actually pronounced by Pope Urban VI in Clermont).  At its core it implies that God gives his blessing, as best as man, or the Catholic Church, can determine that, for some action.  That action was the launch of the first of several crusades in which untold millions died in a series of religious wars to gain or regain control of what we call the Holy Lands – today’s Israel and Palestine.

I must admit that I did a double take when I read this, in part because as I have noted on several occasions I am not a specialist in the Far Right.  I had no idea that there are elements in this disparate movement that have embraced a clearly religious and historically paramount phrase as a raison d’etre for what they stand for.  Think what you will about whether the Crusades were a necessary campaign or not, it is nonetheless striking and worrying that some in the Far Right are copying the exact same language used by Islamist extremists to justify killing and maiming supposedly in God’s (Allah’s) name as an obligatory act of violence.

Let that sink in for a moment.  A group of people now believe that invoking God is a way to call on others to kill Christianity’s enemies, be they Muslims or Jews or whomever.  How is this any different than what the jihadis have been doing for decades?  Not much I’d wager.

For those who counter that this is not normative Christianity I would reply neither is Islamist extremism normative Islam.  My question is the following: how common is this view?  We know that there are far too many Muslims, including religious leaders, who call for killing by saying that Allah demands it: are there Christian preachers making the same demands in the name of God?

If this is a widely held sentiment then we have to label it what it clearly is: Christian (Christianist?) violent extremism.  Regardless of the deity you profess to follow if you couch your language in religious guise we have no choice but to conclude that you are a religious violent extremist: the same goes for Hindu, Buddhist and Jewish violent extremists.

It saddens me to see that yet another religion is being misused and appropriated to condone and call for violence.  I am not so naive to not realise that this is nothing really new but it is still depressing.  More importantly we need to be consistent in our use of language.  To paraphrase an old saying: if it looks, swims and quacks like a Christian extremist it is probably a Christian extremist.  There is no way to duck away from that.