An Israeli law student assassinates a prime minister on behalf of other Jews. A twentysomething Christian militant plants pipe bombs at the Atlanta Olympics in opposition to abortion and gay rights. A young Norwegian man embarks on a mass shooting to “save” his country from Muslim immigrants. Former Ontario high-school classmates become radicalized and join a plot to attack an Algerian gas plant. Two Muslim brothers, one just 19, bomb the Boston Marathon in supposed defence of Islam.
Extremism transcends age and faith, but young people – and young men – are particularly susceptible. Many of their outbursts are carried out in religion’s name, although the dynamics are usually more complex than that. The Globe’s Faith Exchange panel has convened to discuss what religious communities can do to engage young people and provide alternatives to extremism.
- Sheema Khan writes a monthly column for The Globe and Mail. She has a master’s degree in physics and a PhD in chemical physics from Harvard. She is the author of Of Hockey and Hijab: Reflections of a Canadian Muslim Woman .
- Matt Wilkinson is director of youth ministries for Canadian Baptists of Ontario and Quebec and author of Youth Ministry: Now and Not Yet .
- Sikander Hashmi is an imam, writer and teacher in Kingston, Ont.
- Lorna Dueck has been reporting on Christian practice in Canadian life for the past 20 years. She is an evangelical Christian and host of Context with Lorna Dueck , seen Sundays on Global and Vision TV.
- Howard Voss-Altman has been serving Temple B’nai Tikvah, Calgary’s reform Jewish congregation, for the past 10 years. He is a community leader in the areas of human rights and civil liberties.
- Moderator Guy Nicholson is an editor in The Globe’s Comment section. He professes no religious beliefs.
Guy Nicholson: Looking at a list of incidents like the one above, some Canadians would conclude that religious teaching is a cause of extremism, rather than a solution. What would you say to that, panelists?
Lorna Dueck: I would say this list of alarming youth activities coming from religious teaching is extremely incomplete. Rather, we should examine why some religion can be hijacked into violence, and why other faith is developed into virtues and character that build lives for the common good.
In all those cases, we also have to ask whether what is at issue is religion, politics or some mix. Ideologies of religion manipulating for political power are not condoned in Christian practice, but I realize our history is full of examples of just that. It’s bad faith when it happens. When faith turns violent, it is sick faith. Authentic Christian faith in the fashion of Jesus subverts violence, it does not condone or perpetuate it.
Howard Voss-Altman: There are so many forces that join together in producing extremist behavior – mental illness, the response to a particular religious teaching, family dynamics, education, employment (or lack thereof) – that it would be highly simplistic to attribute a criminal or terrorist act to a religious teaching or ideology. However, when religious teachings emphasize exclusivity – that is, the one and only truth – then those religions that do not possess “truth” become an easy target or scapegoat. The danger lies in claiming absolute truth, because then, everyone else must surely be wrong.
Lorna Dueck: As well, when believers withdraw into a narrow world of self, or self-interpretation of a perceived divine voice speaking into imagination, faith is distorted. Faith does have evidence and practice from which to be evaluated and thought carefully on; it is a community and history of practice meant to produce beauty, not destruction.
Sikander Hashmi: Extremism, of the religious type, obviously has to do with religion. But to point the finger at religion as the source of the problem is somewhat like pinning the blame for global warming on Earth and saying, “If there was no Earth, there would be no problem.” Rather, it is what humans do on Earth that will help reduce global warming or increase it. Similarly, when religious teachings are misunderstood and twisted, we find extremism. The answer to religious extremism lies within religion itself. If someone showing radical extremist tendencies is to be challenged, telling them to leave religion altogether won’t cut it.