What exactly is an extremist?
Obviously, someone who is able and willing, in the name of a God, to mow down pedestrians in a van and then set about slashing others with knives; someone who believes so ardently in their faith that they are prepared, at the low end of an awful range of options, to flout the accepted mores and customs of society, and at the high end to commit cruel and reckless acts in the hope of eternal salvation.
In the former category I would put the man who has been carefully taught to believe that his wife is a lesser breed of human, and so may be forced – among many other foul indignities – to cover her face and body in public, to walk several paces behind him, and to be barred from driving the family car. In the same category, in reverse, is the woman who is not merely willing but anxious to accept such impositions as part of God’s Great Plan.
Of course, there is a world of difference between treating women as chattels and killing ‘infidels’ at random on the streets. But to what extent, if any, does the first tend to corrupt and deprave the more impressionable, leading them more easily, and perhaps inexorably, to slide from the lesser category of offence to the greater? It may be argued, though not by me, that there is neither cause nor effect, but I am not so sure.
Karl Marx it was who described religion as the opium of the people. He may have been wrong in most of his precepts, but he was not far off the mark in this one. Religious fanatics often share the fate of drug addicts. At first druggies are able to control their habit, or at least convince themselves that they can, but soon, as the mind is steadily eaten away, the habit starts to control them – and, finally, if suitable treatment is not found, destroys them. By then morality has been corrupted beyond repair, and reason fled to brutish beasts.
The analogy is all wrong, you may say. Drugs are commodities bought and sold, in most categories illegally, and are the result of exploitation of the young and vulnerable. Well, all I can say to that is, so are religions. What is the moral distinction between the mobsters who peddle dangerous chemicals and the clerics who peddle dangerous ideas? Both lead eventually to the poisoning of minds and the destruction of lives.
The point is that terrorists like the men who went on a rampage on London Bridge are not inspired by a sudden epiphany. They are weaned from moderation and manipulated into extremism by clerics and others with an agenda that allows for no others. Once the victims of this kind of brainwashing have been convinced that theirs is the only True Faith and that the more they commit to proving the point, with no limits imposed, the more they are likely to travel beyond sanity.
My ideal start to finding a solution, admittedly not the most practical, would be to legalise drugs and ban religions – and, while we’re at it, to tax both. That would at least put the mobsters and drug cartels out of business, if not the clerics, and inflate the public purse in the process.
But you are free to conclude from the foregoing fatuity that I have no more idea how to resolve the problem of religious extremism than I have of ending greed, or hypocrisy or selfishness. I am, sadly, in good company. President Trump thinks he has any number of solutions, but each of them suffers the fatal defect of being either illegal or irrelevant. Prime Minister May says ‘enough is enough’ and that we must become less tolerant of intolerance. But she fails to explain how. I can’t blame them for not having the answers, just for pretending that they have.
Anyway, I think we are all pretty intolerant of intolerance already. How much more intolerant are we supposed to become, before words and phrases such as internment and concentration camps and – strike me down – ‘final solutions’ start to enter the political vocabulary? The latter has already been disgracefully deployed in a tweet by a radio commentator (and Daily Mail columnist). The radio station fired her. The vitriol will, apparently, continue in the newspaper.
Meanwhile, in Britain we fall back on blaming the security services, which, until a month ago, were congratulating themselves on being so much more superior at their jobs than any other services that London had escaped the terrors inflicted on other cities. They are not, needless to say, raising glasses now. If the word ‘toast’ is being used these days it is in its other sense, as in some of our senior security people are ‘toast’.
Yes, two of the three London Bridge perpetrators were known to MI5, but so are hundreds, perhaps thousands, of others. They can’t all be watched day and night, and they can’t be arrested until they have done something criminal. Even if suspected of crimes, they cannot be held unless charges are brought against them. That is how our legal system, and those of other modern democracies, works. Any other way is unthinkable. Other ways have been tried, close to home, and in my lifetime. The result was terrorism, this time in the name of the state.
I find it difficult to blame the secret services and police for our predicament. They are, for the most part, doing an impossible job reasonably well. We can ask no more. Even so, we must, and we will.
The inarguable and terrible truth is that we – meaning secular, democratic societies of the West – have no more idea how to eliminate extremism and terror than we have to banish killer drugs and their dealers. Both are plagues, and both are of ancient vintage.
One religion in particular has a great deal to answer for, as others had before it, not for nurturing terrorism itself but by promoting a kind of primer, an introductory course that posits the defaming of other faiths, or the faithless, and by demeaning half the human race.
Finally, kindly notice, if you feel that I have been offensive to one religion in particular, that I have not once mentioned the M word.
My tolerance knows no bounds. Not, I fear, for much longer.