7/7, Tunisia and Radical Islam

Reflections on the recent terrorist attack in Tunisia, and radical Islam.

Nine years ago I found myself at King’s Cross station a year to the day after the 7/7 attack. I was travelling to General Synod in York and arrived to catch my train as the memorial commemoration was taking place. As the station stood in silence, it was both moving and disturbing to imagine the events of the previous year. I imagined people going about their business, only to be caught up in such a terrible act of violence.

This July, Britain reels from an attack which killed 30 of its own citizens on a Tunisian holiday beach. If anything, the threat of attack has become more sinister, as so-called ‘lone-wolves’ plan and prepare violence in ways that those who are employed to protect us find it very hard to detect and prevent. Nevertheless, we can give thanks to God that the significant number of conspiracies and acts of violence which have been prevented (and we will never likely know how many that is) have resulted in only a tiny number of individual acts of violence in Britain (chiefly the murder of Lee Rigby in our own Diocese). On the whole, we have been kept safe and secure.

In a recent Guardian article Canon Giles Fraser took issue with the prevailing view that it is radical Islam which is the breeding ground of terrorism. He said that he believes that the evidence for a connection between radical theology and terrorism is flimsy. He says, “The reason this is important has nothing to do with exonerating religion. I don’t care about apologetics here. So let me acknowledge that both the Qur’an and the Bible have passages that are deeply immoral. But don’t get distracted by this. For this is not how or why people go to Iraq to become murderous criminals. They go – largely – because they believe their tribe is under attack, that Bashar al-Assad is dropping chlorine gas, that the west invaded Iraq, because of torture and Guantánamo Bay, and because they have a warped and misguided sense of adventure in responding to all this.”

Dr Giles Fraser

Dr Giles Fraser

I think it important to acknowledge the truth in what Fraser says, although as always his polemical arguments risk a false dichotomy. The complexities of the Middle East are not simply caused by the export and nurture of conservative and fundamentalist strains of Islam from Saudi Arabia and Iran; they are also the result of Western imperial and colonial history. Our own history in the region – over a century and not just since the invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan – makes us culpable. To this extent Fraser is right when he concludes, “If you want to find a terrorist, look for people buying dodgy chemicals, not people saying their prayers.”

But conservative and fundamentalist streams of Islam and Christianity have a common sense of persecution, a belief that only they hold the truth and that not only the world, but importantly the religious mainstream of their faith, have sold out to the secular values of our age. They create a hermetic world, impregnable to reason, which both feeds their own sense of importance and strengthens their sense of special, righteous calling. It is too easy a Western simplification to say this is about politics, not faith. Those carrying the bombs see no difference between the two.

I think that we therefore have to recognise that what we face is a religious as well as a political problem. Politicians – in an attempt no doubt to keep moderate Islamic voices on board and in a right desire to prevent Islamophobia rising – have too easily imbibed the view that radical Islam is somehow not authentically Islamic. It seems to me that unless it is acknowledged as such, it will never truly be able to be challenged at a theological level. Theology – very bad theology I’m sure – makes a very significant contribution to the atmosphere of radical jihad. Good theology is necessary to challenge its claims and to reduce its impact on impressionable and vulnerable young minds.

We too need to play our part; to understand our Muslim neighbours and to befriend them in a time they fear for their place in society is a good human place to start. But perhaps we, in our own Christian tradition, need to ensure our own belief and practice is modelled on the biblical picture of our Lord Jesus Christ so that we too know what we believe and why. Such strong belief provides a secure place upon which we can take our own stand, not only in resisting radical Islam, but also to stand with our Muslim brothers and sisters as we live out authentic faith in a tremendously secular city.

Simon Butler

*We hope to explore some of these issues in the autumn, perhaps through our Advent talks. More details later in the year.