A column I wrote that has been published in The Australian
“If I were God,” thundered Martin Luther, “and the world had treated me as it treated him, I would kick the wretched thing to pieces.”
The Protestant reformer might have issued a similar rant if he had lived through 2016, a year of brutal civil wars, senseless slaughter and political turmoil.
What might Luther have thought about the grotesque terror attacks inspired by Islamic State, revelations of clerical child abuse, the humanitarian crisis in Syria, the anti-migrant backlash that fuelled Brexit, the anti-establishment populism that led to the election of Donald Trump and predictions of even more seismic change?
We live in a world of chaos, complexity and conflict that seemingly offers no comfort for our fears.
The alleged Christmas Day terror plot in Melbourne is further evidence that no place is safe in an intensely globalised environment. All cities are now potential targets for those eager to kill in the name of a cause.
And, sadly, many of the upheavals that drive our greatest fears have been perpetrated in God’s name.
According to the American fundamentalist evangelicals, God was clearly on the side of Trump, despite the winning presidential candidate’s lack of genuine religiosity.
According to the fundamentalist Islamic-fascist terrorists, God is the inspiration for the murder of thousands in the quest for a world caliphate.
Religious fundamentalists are sometimes said to take religion too seriously — the opposite is true. Fundamentalism has less to do with real faith than politics and power.
As Jonathan Swift explained: “We have just enough religion to make us hate, but not enough to make us love one another.”
Fundamentalism is not confined to any particular ideology. What all extreme fundamentalists have in common is hateful rhetoric, a theology of fear, self-righteousness, greed and hypocrisy. Fundamentalism divides the world into the “righteous” and the rest. It promotes an “us and them” mentality. We should have no qualms about condemning fundamentalism — Islamic or otherwise — for what it is: a dangerous set of beliefs.
The message common to the great religious traditions is the Golden Rule: all men and women are equal in God’s view, do as you would be done by, love your enemies, and turn the other cheek. Yet verses in holy books have been exploited by the religiously deranged to justify the destruction of those who hold different beliefs.
The Islamic terrorists wanting to justify jihad often quote a portion of the Koranic verse — the “verse of the sword” — that states: “Fight and slay the pagans wherever ye find them.”
Yet the next immediate verse, the part the terrorists always ignore, states: “If any of the idolaters seeks of thee protection, grant him protection till he hears the words of God; then do thou convey him to his place of security.”
The terrorists who shout “Allahu akbar” — God is great — as they drive bomb-laden vehicles into crowds of civilians have no idea what God wants. Their evil actions are blasphemy.
As the Dalai Lama said recently, any person who wants to indulge in violence is no longer a genuine Muslim. They are no longer practising religion.
Religious extremism readily accepts hypocrisy. It pays lip service to the ideals of genuine faith but ignores them in practice.
Extremists use religion as an excuse for their hate. They may claim they are protecting religion but that’s a lie. They are really just after power and influence by any means. The truth is that the terror attacks on God’s creatures are attacks against God’s law. Some people make definite choices to commit evil and use religion as its vehicle. In extremist hands, Islam has been perverted from a personal faith into a madness that knows no constraints or boundaries.
Moderate Muslims may denounce the extremists but cannot ignore the fact Islamic State, although a violent perversion, is linked to their own religious traditions. They must proclaim loudly that Muslims are not obliged by the Koran to embrace terrorist actions against non-Muslims. We also may ask why some Arab states are not doing more to stop Islamic State. The responsibility for deradicalisation of young Muslim men and women lies largely within Islam’s own ranks.
Fundamentalism appeals to base tendencies that can justify hatred, persecution and murder. It is a refusal of conversation, with its followers insisting that they should not be challenged or even questioned. Fundamentalism makes basic mistakes. It doesn’t understand that genuine faith cannot be enforced through fear or violence. People cannot be intimidated to believe at the point of a gun or under the threat of a bomb.
A US study this year stated that terrorism, with its reliance on bad psychology, wrong target choice and a high degree of violence, is an inefficient strategy to reach political goals. It found that terrorism was largely inefficient at disorienting people. On the contrary, the strategy of terrorism could trigger opposite reactions.
The extremists cannot win. The dark message of hatred and intolerance is one of self-deception and an erroneous sense of certainty. It is unconvincing and ultimately unsatisfying.
We live in a dangerous world where clashes of culture are a fact of life. Yet we cannot live in fear. Being unafraid amid the turmoil means coming to terms with a world that does not always have fairytale endings and still being able to see God’s supporting presence all around us.
As Mahatma Gandhi said: “When I despair, I remember that all through history the way of truth and love has always won. There have been tyrants and murderers, and for a time, they can seem invincible, but in the end they always fall. Think of it. Always.”