Charlie Hebdo attack: Is religion to blame?

Lapido Media director Jenny Taylor: "We have a tremendous opportunity to demonstrate that love is stronger than death."Geoff Crawford

Today's shootings in Paris have thrown into sharp relief questions about the relations between religion and civil society which have become more and more urgent in recent years. In France, the insistence that the state is secular and that religion is private saw the introduction of a ban on the full-face burqa. Journalists at the Charlie Hebdo satirical magazine could cheerfully – and bravely – mock Islam on the grounds that they lived in France, under French law, rather than in Tehran or Kabul. Now, however, the two worlds have collided in tragedy. 

The instant reaction will probably to blame religion for what has happened – and according to the director of Lapido Media, which campaigns for religious literacy, we should not shy away from telling things as they are. Speaking to Christian Today, she said: "Your religion is not what you say, it is what you do. If you shoot innocent people in the course of their work in the name of God, that is a religious act and you can't deny it." 

However, a new report launched yesterday by Lapido and the Open University argues that the role of religion in conflict – either in threatening security or promoting it – is "ambivalent".

The Religion, Security and Global Uncertainties report found that while religion is often portrayed in the media as being central to world conflict, the reality is that it is operating "in tandem with other factors".

It says that unhelpful, or even irresponsible, reporting means that the secular West has cultivated an attitude that religion is an extremist problem, highlighted by such atrocities committed in the name of Islam by militant groups like Islamic State and Boko Haram.

However, Caroline Rooney, a Professor of African and Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Kent, argues in the report that religion, rather than being the cause of global security threats, often only provides "competitive branding" for divisions with political, cultural or territorial roots.

"In general, our participants have the view that religion itself was seldom a threat to security. Rather, problems arise when religion operates in tandem, with other factors, especially political ones," the report says.

"At the extreme, it can provide spurious legitimacy for violent action by marginalised and/or unbalanced individuals, who may in fact have been stimulated by wider social norms that glorify violence."

The report also argues that Western perceptions of religion as part of a wider international security threat "can be a self-fulfilling prophecy that actually creates, reinforces or exacerbates frontiers, tensions and conflicts".

Poor understanding of the complexities of religious belief, theologies and ideologies means that nuances are often lost in mass reporting, as well as within academic and political circles.

Speaking ahead of the event to Lapido, Chairman of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Global Uncertainties, John Glen MP, stressed the importance of discussing religion and security "in the same forum".

"I think there's a tendency to simplify and not to contextualise religion within other matters such as the sense of alienation, the democratic deficit, the lack of enfranchisement in society," he said.

"It's easier to attribute motivation to a misguided theology or religious affiliation rather than to a more complicated mix of resentments and identifications that form motivation for an actor in an extremist situation."

Before a room of academics and practitioners in parliament yesterday, Glen highlighted the necessity of greater religious literacy and "intelligent analysis" of world conflict.

"We are here to challenge religious literacy in a time of global uncertainty," he said.

"Politicians generally...often do not understand the interaction between religion and...different social contexts that people find themselves in. I'm always disappointed by the way that any narrative when looking at religion and security is very simplistic, and doesn't do justice to all the factors that exist on the ground."

A panel including Prof Grace Davie and Dr Mustafa Baig of the University of Exeter, Foreign Correspondent for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, Betsy Hiel, and BBC Radio 4's Tom Holland then discussed the need for deeper analysis of the role of religion in global politics, and the floor was opened up for questions. Those present queried the term 'religious literacy' and questioned the role of economics in the presentation of religion as a threat.

Prof John Wolffe of the Department of Religious Studies at the Open University argued that the media has a "crucial role to play" in the education of the general population with regards to religion. He called for the introduction of greater nuance in dialogue surrounding the issue.

"There is no simple cause and effect between 'dangerous' ideas and violent action," he said, drawing on the way in which Islam is perceived by much of the Western population. "Islamist extremism is a distinct ideology which should not be confused with traditional religious practice."

The actions of two terrorists in Paris today were driven by Islamist religious extremism. According to Jenny Taylor, though, religion is not just part of the problem but may be part of the solution. She told Christian Today: "We have a tremendous opportunity to demonstrate that love is stronger than death."