Religion, terrorism and politics
This week the world was again shaken by a brutal and sickening terrorist attack, as Islamist militants killed 235 people and injured many more in Egypt. The victims were gathered in a mosque for Friday prayers and gunned down in cold blood. Whilst the motivation behind the crime remains unclear, one dynamic may well have been that the mosque in question was linked to a Sufi order, regarded as heretical by IS and other extremists. However, even though at present it is impossible to know exactly what lay behind the actions of the gunmen, it is beyond question is that the targets and victims were Muslim.
Popular debate often seeks to over-simplify complex and nuanced situations, attaching labels which are convenient, but which can also be misleading and over simplistic. There are many people driven by ideological agendas who wish to portray the current geopolitical tensions as a struggle between Muslims and non-Muslims. Ironically, this trope suits the purposes of both right wing Islamophobes and also Islamic extremists; but the reality could not be further from the truth, as the majority of individuals who have lost their homes, professions, loved ones and lives to the Islamic State have been Muslim. Moreover, terrorist acts in Western Europe have increased social tensions, contributing to soaring hate crime against religious and racial minorities. Again, those who identify as Muslim have been amongst those who have suffered most.
Furthermore, it goes without saying that being Muslim in no way makes a person immune to bombs or bullets when these are unleashed randomly in the public square. Zara Ahmed, a survivor of the Manchester Arena bomb attack, proudly embraced Islam, and was in no different a position from so many other young people attending the Ariana Grande concert that night. The numerous tributes following her sudden and tragic death from diabetes have emphasised her determination to show the world the positive aspects of her faith. Whilst Zara Ahmed, the perpetrators of the Manchester bomb and the attackers behind Egyptian atrocity all identified as Muslim, what that meant in terms of beliefs and values for the people concerned could not have been more dramatically different. Why should the understanding of Islam adopted by those pursuing violence and hate be seen as any more authentic or defining than that of a vibrant young woman commendably determined to contribute to the common good?
In reality, none of the labels used to describe religious, political and ideological affiliation can hope to be subtle or flexible enough to capture the diversity within the group. Individuals and communities have a wide spectrum of understandings of what it means to be a Muslim, and how this relates to other social and ethical matters. Exactly the same could be said about the label Christian.
There are those in this faith who assert that the growing recognition of the rights of transgender people is a threat for practising Christians; but there are many others who would argue that recognising the dignity and needs of all people, especially the vulnerable, is a non-negotiable aspect of the faith, and believe that respect for LGBTQ rights is actually required by Christianity. Equally, there are others who are confused or conflicted about the issue, perhaps due to reservations about the interaction between transgender and women’s rights.
In short, the badge ‘Christian’ in itself reveals precisely nothing about a person’s attitude to gender, sexuality or politics. This blatant reality applies to other religious, political and ideological labels. There is no one version of what it means to be a feminist, humanist, Christian, Jew, vegan or pacifist. Public debate or policy making which stereotypes groups for convenience cannot hope to lead to good collective decisions. In fact, for this very reason, Human Rights Law recognises manifestations of belief which individuals see as emanating from their convictions, and does not require them to show that their actions are normative for all other Hindus, Marxists etc. Labels are not meaningless, and we do need some common framework for discussion, but they should only ever be tools, not constraints.
Tragedy as 18 year old Manchester bomb survivor dies suddenly (Manchester Evening News 27/11/17)
Egypt Mosque horror ‘will work against extremists’ (BBC News 26/11/7)
Egypt Attack: Gunmen kill 235 in Sinai mosque (BBC News 24/11/17)
Printer sparks transgender row over Christian beliefs (BBC News 16/10/17)
Muslims, Jews and Christians on being LGBT and believing in God (The Independent 5/4/17)
Sufism (BBC Religions 09/08/08)