Religion doesn't cause conflict, fundamentalism does


The fourth of this year's Westminster Faith Debates took place on Wednesday night, which saw a panel of experts discuss the issue of religious fundamentalism and its tendency to dominate religious discourse.

Former Home Secretary Charles Clarke opened the discussion by noting that it is often difficult to negotiate between hardline and more moderate religious positions given the media's propensity to give "greater authority to those who are more dramatic".

"It is a question of who purchases the media attention on fundamentalists leads to the misunderstanding of the nature of religion, its beliefs and practices," he asserted.

"This is a very important subject because it impacts the way that religion is perceived by society...We need greater understanding," he finished, before handing the floor over to Dr Masooda Bano of the University of Oxford.

Dr Bano began by unpacking the language of the question posed, and argued that to assume those religious people with hardline beliefs have a propensity towards violent conflict is not a helpful place to begin.

"Violence and conflict are not about religion, they are about oppression and political marginalisation," she said, although she added that "other-worldly" rewards offered by religion could sometimes encourage believers to undertake "sacrificial" violence.

She agreed, however, with Clarke in his assertion that those with moderate religious views are often too quiet within religious discourse. "Moderates hardly speak.  They need to come forward," she urged.

Her comments were later supported by Maajid Nawaz, formerly a member of an Islamist revolutionary group and now chair of a counter-extremist think-tank, who also argued that religion is not the cause of conflict, but rather those within a religion who choose to take part in the "social dehumanising of the 'other' for not adhering to their standards of religiosity".

He insisted that the notion of fundamentalism is different to conservative practice, and that all religions are open to interpretation but it is important not to "surrender the debate to extremists", arguing that by doing so we "disempower the moderate voices".

This idea was also picked by Sir Tony Baldry, who asserted that there are a wide range of beliefs within all religions, just as there are in any social group. He suggested that to pose the original question in a different way might be: "To what extent should the tolerant tolerate the intolerant?".  He noted the importance of "brokering a consensus between different groups".

Peter Herriot, a self- described "liberal Methodist", added to the debate his belief that every social system, and therefore every religion, is somewhere on a continuum, with integration at one end and differentiation at the other.

Fundamentalists, he argued, are keen to differentiate themselves in order to "set up a context for conflict to occur" and to strengthen their self-identity as a powerful way of motivating their followers.

This led to the suggestion from chair of the debate, Linda Woodhead, that members of the panel held opposing views, with Bano and Nawaz contending that religion is not the cause of conflict, and Herriot indicating that conflict is actually central to driving fundamentalism.

All three panel members were quick to counter this argument, however, once again drawing attention to the importance of not using "religion" and "fundamentalism" interchangeably.

"Religion doesn't cause conflict, fundamentalism does," Nawaz said.

A following question and answer session raised such issues as the UK Government's role in the portrayal of religion in the media, our obsession with fundamentalism rather than the religious majority, and the role of justice within the international debate.

The panel concluded that greater dialogue is needed in order to open up the discussion and find ways of understanding different strands of religious thought. Real engagement and intelligent debate were heralded as key to eliminating future conflicts as the experts contended that public conceptions of fundamentalism and religion are often misguided, which only further complicates the overall discourse.

"It's extremely important to disentangle the role of religion from political, social and economic factors," Clarke noted.

"The true role of religion has been dealt with extremely loosely...dialogue is unbelievably important."