On Religious Fundamentalism and Terrorism

Interview With Professor Joan-Andreu Rocha

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ROME, JULY 17, 2005 (Zenit.org).- Not all terrorism is religious fundamentalism, and not all religious fundamentalism is terrorist, says a professor.

In an interview with ZENIT in the wake of the July 7 London bombings, Joan-Andreu Rocha Scarpetta, professor and director of the master’s program on the Church, Ecumenism and Religions of the Regina Apostolorum Pontifical University of Rome, outlines the framework of this relationship between faith and terrorism.

Q: Very minor currents of Islam promote violence. Are they representative?

Rocha: There are many Muslim fundamentalist groups of a terrorist nature, and their origin is in the specific reality of the various Muslim countries.

Since the 1990s, with al-Qaida, the situation has worsened, as several groups are allied with this “multinational” of Islamic fundamentalism which seeks alliances with groups worldwide, and promotes cells in European Muslim centers, creating a kind of terrorist federalism that is difficult to track down.

This is the case of the Al Qaeda of Jihad Organization in Europe group, which was behind the London attacks. In addition to the cost in human lives, this group has demonstrated that the British ideal of cultural integration, retaining a strong native identity, does not work perfectly.

In fact, some Indian-Pakistani groups of England are the ones best integrated in the system, yet they have shown themselves to be a potential source of Islamic terrorist cells. This strong, unassimilated identity is a culture of potential fundamentalists, which seek to impose by force the ideals of a distorted Islam.

Q: Are religious fundamentalists about religion mixed with politics or politics mixed with religion?

Rocha: Every religion entails, one way or another, a social change, precisely because it aspires to justice or compassion. Because of this, all religions have a political consequence which is not negative, but just the opposite.

The fallacy of contemporary secularism is precisely to want to reduce religions to a purely personal issue, denying their social transcendence. But it is not easy to bring about social change. Some propound this change of society by forcing it — with terrorist acts — because they don’t see any other solution.

Religious fundamentalisms overcome the tension between social change and religious ideal with extreme answers which have clear political consequences: either shutting themselves in on themselves, as in the case of the Haredim Jews, trying to monopolize society, as Hindu fundamentalism, or seeking to impose their own way of seeing things in a violent manner.

The latter is the way of Islamic fundamentalism of a terrorist nature, which is very much a minority but very radical.

Therefore, the question is not whether politics is or is not mixed with religion, but in what way the tension is resolved between the religious ideal and political action.

Q: Are these lethal attacks the result of religious fundamentalism or pure terrorism?

Rocha: In the case of the recent terrorist attacks in London, as last year’s in Madrid, it is a terrorist action justified by a belligerent religious fundamentalism, which seeks to condition society by imposing its own ideas with fear.

In religions, not just in Islam, fundamentalism manifests itself as a tendency that, wishing to be representative of religious truth, takes part of the doctrine as if it were the whole. That is, it disfigures it at the service of its own ideology.

Islamic fundamentalism has several currents, and among them some are terrorist. It must be remembered, however, that not all terrorism is religious fundamentalism, and not all religious fundamentalism is terrorist.<br>
Q: Who or what can put an end to religious fundamentalism?

Rocha: We often forget that every religion has a notable internal pluralism, whether in the different traditions that arose in the course of history — for example, Christianity, with the Catholic, Protestant, Orthodox, etc., traditions — or in the different tendencies within the same tradition — conservative, liberal, etc.

Fundamentalist groups are in this second type of plurality, at the break point with the rest of the group.

In Islamic fundamentalism, it is the case both among Sunnis as well as Shiites, but it takes on particular characteristics in each group.

The long road to extinguish religious fundamentalism and, concretely, the Islamic, begins with dialogue within the religion itself, which is undoubtedly the most difficult. But the fact that it is difficult does not mean it isn’t necessary.

The other religions can help by overcoming their prejudices about the religion in question, or by fostering the more tolerant tendencies. But the internal dialogue corresponds to Islam itself. And in this connection, I think there is still a long way to go.

Q: The Catholic Church, beginning with the Pope and including the faithful of hundreds of countries, are asking the terrorists to stop, in the name of God. Do these people who kill mercilessly listen to reason?

Rocha: A fundamentalist, whether or not religious, will hardly listen to the reasons of others, but this does not mean that we must be silent.

The psychology of a fundamentalist, extensively studied, shows precisely a fixation with his own ideas as the only valid truth. In general they are simple but radical ideas that justify the way in which fundamentalist groups see the world, dividing it between “our own” — the good — and “the rest” — the evil.

The Church must make her voice heard, in the name of God, for the sake of peace and against violence. Only God knows whom he forgives, and his judgment and mercy are beyond us.

But humanity, and specifically Christians, are asked not to be silent in the face of the scandal of violence in the name of God.

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