When Religion Kills lives up to the hype – The Kingston Whig-Standard

Posted: February 1, 2020 at 8:44 am

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Displaced Rohingya refugees from Rakhine state in Myanmar walk near Ukhia, at the border between Bangladesh and Myanmar, as they flee violence in September 2017. (K.M. Adas/Getty Images)

Phil Gurski, When Religion Kills: How Extremists Justify Violence Through Faith (Boulder, CO, Lynne Reiner Publishers, 2020), pp. 181.

Some books with somewhat dramatic titles do not live up to the hype. This one does. It is a systematic examination of the way extremists have embraced their religions to perpetrate violence on an often grand scale.

The author, Phil Gurski, is a former senior analyst with the Canadian Security Intelligence Service. He now runs a risk consulting firm. He brings to his task a vast amount of practical experience in the struggle against terrorist threats in Canada and abroad. But he makes clear that he makes no claim to being a theologian or a scholar. Rather, he goes about his business assessing factual material and analyzing it in the best traditions of intelligence assessments. The result is a fascinating treatment of a difficult, and often delicate, subject.

In six meaty chapters, Gurski examines six major world religions in alphabetical order: Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, Judaism and Sikhism.

At first sight, a look at Buddhism in this context may seem counterintuitive. Most westerners view Buddhism as a religion dedicated to peace, tolerance, compassion and non-violence. The best known of all Buddhists is the Dalai Lama, a man revered for his advocacy of reason and compassion in human affairs. And yet Buddhists have been responsible for horrendous acts of violence. In the dying days of the Sri Lankan civil war in 2009, Buddhist security forces massacred thousands of Hindu Tamil civilians. In the years since then, there have been numerous attacks on Muslims and Christians, some fomented by politicians and some by Buddhist monks. Sri Lanka remains a cauldron of Buddhist extremism. So, too, is Myanmar (the former Burma). As Gurski puts it: Beginning in 2016 a humanitarian catastrophe of biblical proportions occurred when hundreds of thousands (perhaps more than a million) Rohingya Muslims were forced to flee the northwestern state of Rakhine following the Burmese armys systematic campaign of rape and murder in an attempt at ethnic cleansing. Most of them now live in miserable refugee camps in Bangladesh. Much of this anti-Muslim activity can be attributed to the writings and sermons of a Buddhist monk by the name of Ashin U Wirathu, known as the Buddhist bin Laden. He routinely puts out messages on Facebook inciting hatred against Muslims. Buddhists in Thailand also display similar tendencies. Gurski concludes this chapter with the following thought: Many in these countries oppose the acts committed by the extremist minority in the name of its faith, but the dominance of so many Buddhist monks and religious leaders in terrorism leaves little alternative but to conclude that they truly believe their faith sanctions this kind of violence.

Christianity is also a religion whose founder preached love, peace and tolerance. But over the centuries, Christians have not shied away from the use of violence, from the crusades to the Inquisition to the European wars of religion. In more recent times a host of violent far-right individuals and movements have identified themselves with Christianity. Their targets have been varied and numerous, including Jews, Muslims, mixed-race couples, abortion providers, left-wing politicians and advocates of multiculturalism. More often than not, they justify their acts of terrorism as being in defence of traditional Christian values and of Christian civilization, which they portray as being under attack by non-Christians. A particularly notable example of this was the young Norwegian Anders Brevik, whose attacks resulted in the death of 76 people and the wounding of 300 more. In his manifesto, Brevik spoke out in favour of a sustainable and traditional version of Christendom, which alone could fend off an invasion by Muslims and Arabs. Much the same language was used by Brenton Tarrant, an Australian who killed 50 people and wounded 50 more in an attack on two mosques in New Zealand. But beyond individuals of this kind, there are a host of organizations in the United States and elsewhere who use Christianity to propagate hatred and violence against non-Christians.

Hindu nationalism is certainly not a new phenomenon, but one which has come to prominence in the past 25 years or so. The political manifestation of the movement is the Bhartiya Janata Party, which won national elections in 2014 and 2019 under the leadership of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The main objective of the BJP is to turn India into a Hindu nation, as opposed to the secular nation envisaged by the countrys founders and embodied in the constitution. Since coming to office, the BJP has adopted policies and laws that discriminate against Muslims, who represent a minority of some 200 million Indians. And the government has turned a blind eye to thousands of acts of violence committed by Hindu nationalists against Muslims and Christians. Hindu extremism is the only one to enjoy the tacit support of a national government, albeit that Buddhist extremists are often in cahoots with the governments of Sri Lanka and Myanmar,

The phenomenon of Islamist extremism has been amply covered by the media in recent years and does not need elaboration here. From the al-Qaida attacks on Washington and New York in 2001 to the depredations of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria in 2014 to 2018, the story is one of repeated horrors. And the killing of leaders such as Osama Bin Laden and Abu Bakr al Baghdadi seems to have done nothing to quell the fervour of their followers. Islamist terrorism is something that will persist for a long time, but as Gurski points out, the vast majority of Islamist attacks took place in five countries in 2017: Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, the Philippines and Iraq. Westerners need to continue to rely on the security and intelligence services of their governments to preserve them from Islamist threats, but they are not the main targets of those threats. The unfortunate byproduct of Islamist extremism is that too many westerners come to suffer from Islamophobia, blaming 1.5 billion Muslims for the sins of a few thousand.

Gurski begins his chapter on Jewish extremism with a quote from Richard Dawkins book The God Delusion. It runs as follows: The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal malevolent bully. Dawkins language may be a bit colourful, but there is little doubt that if the God of the Old Testament were still around today, he would find himself in front of a court in The Hague on charges of ethnic cleansing and genocide. In short, violence is no stranger to the Jewish tradition. Now it is true that Jews have been the victim far more than the perpetrators of violence, from the Crusades to the Inquisition, from the Pogroms of the 19th century to the Holocaust of Nazi Germany. That does not mean, however, that Jewish extremists have not been responsible for horrendous acts of terrorism. In the run-up to the creation of Israel, organizations such as the Irgun and the Lehi mounted terrorist attacks on British and Palestinian targets. In more recent times, Jewish extremists have manifested themselves in the Occupied West Bank, where Jewish settlers routinely attack Palestinian civilians, mosques, churches and Dovish Israeli groups, in the name of their interpretation of Judaism.

Sikh extremists are largely dedicated to one objective: the creation of an independent Sikh homeland called Khalistan in the Indian state of Punjab. In pursuit of this goal, a variety of Sikh movements perpetrated acts of violence in India. It is estimated that in the 1980s they were responsible for the deaths of 20,000 people, including 2,000 members of the Indian security forces. In 1985, members of an organization known as the Babbar Khalsa International were responsible for the worst terrorist attack in Canadian history, the bombing of an Air India flight that led to the deaths of 329 people. While Sikh extremist violence has declined somewhat in recent years, it has known something of an upsurge since the election of the BJP Hindu nationalist government in 2014. The still relatively new Indian government is seen as being involved in active discrimination against Sikhs, as well as Muslims and Christians.

Some of the movements discussed in this book may be seen as primarily nationalist, but they all wrap themselves in the cloak of religion. Gurski does a fine job of analyzing their motivations and their operations. He buttresses his arguments with hundreds of endnotes and a 23-page bibliography. This is a book well worth reading by anyone interested in the phenomenon of extremist violence.

Louis A. Delvoie is a retired Canadian diplomat who served abroad as an ambassador and high commissioner.

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When Religion Kills lives up to the hype - The Kingston Whig-Standard

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