”In a speech I gave in September to head teachers of Church of England schools, I said – uncontroversially in my view – that in order to defeat terrorism, we need to understand the mind-set of those who perpetrate it. To my surprise, a small number of media commentators viewed my comments as appeasing terrorists and their acts. However depraved it may be, groups like ISIS have an ideology, indeed a theology – which is at the heart of their propaganda, and therefore the driving force – which holds an apocalyptic understanding of human history, not as a loose term but in its strictest technical terms: they believe that the world is about to end, that the Prophet will return with Jesus, and will defeat the western powers.
It’s very difficult to understand the things that impel people to some of the dreadful actions that we have seen over the last few years unless you have some sense of religious literacy. You may reject and condemn it – that’s fine – but you still need to understand what they’re talking about. And in order to understand, religious people in Europe must regain the ability to share our religious vocabulary with the rest of the continent. If we treat religiously-motivated violence solely as a security issue, or a political issue, then it will be incredibly difficult – probably impossible – to overcome it. A theological voice needs to be part of the response, and we should not be bashful in offering that.
This requires a move away from the argument that has become increasingly popular, which is to say that ISIS is ‘nothing to do with Islam’, or that Christian militia in the Central African Republic are nothing to do with Christianity, or Hindu nationalist persecution of Christians in South India is nothing to do with Hinduism. Until religious leaders stand up and take responsibility for the actions of those who do things in the name of their religion, we will see no resolution.
Of course, it is insufficient to only use our understanding of religious language in a defensive or preventative sense. In the United Kingdom, our counter-radicalisation programme in schools and universities is called ‘Prevent’, which I believe sums up the overall approach to religious extremism. Rather than simply seeking to prevent ‘bad’ religion, however, we have to offer an alternative vision of the role of faith in our societies that is more convincing. That is more profound. That is more satisfying to the human spirit. And where to do we find a better vision than in the gospel of Jesus Christ, in the good news of Christ?”