Why the religious Right can be dangerous, but…

10 Aug

… how their influence is both exaggerated by and strengthened by the media.

As we know, the media thrive on conflict and dichotomy. We have a good example today in the Sydney Morning Herald where the activities of a minority group in Australian Christianity are puffed because of the potential for sensationalism: Christian leaders plan anti-Islam conference. Now how anyone can take seriously something that is the brainchild of someone who “was widely criticised for issuing a press release in the week after the Victorian disaster claiming the fires which claimed 173 lives were punishment for the relaxation of Victoria’s abortion laws” escapes me, but it does make good copy. A much more mainstream approach to the issue of Islam may be seen here.

The great irony of simplistic and confrontational approaches to Islam is that they mirror and give credence to the views of the violent extremists who are the cause for concern in the first place. Forget for the moment reflex cries of “racism” and “Islamophobia”. The truth is that such “good souls” as those concerned Christians are feeding the “enemy” whose recruitment drive among the young, idealistic or alienated* totally depends on believing that Islam is under attack. I am sure they thank Allah daily for the work of Pastor Nalliah, Fred Nile and David Clarke for making that belief even more acceptable. So without meaning to, some of the greatest friends of violent jihadist extremism in this country are Pastor Nalliah, Old Uncle Tom Cobley and all.

evangelicalnation That the influence of the Religious Right in the USA is something of an illusion for which the US Right and liberals have both fallen is the thesis of an excellent book by Christine Wicker: The Fall of the Evangelical Nation (HarperOne 2008). By carefully examining the available statistics and how they are created Wicker proves, to my satisfaction, that the voice of the Religious Right has been magnified way beyond its actual potential strength. Rather than the commonly quoted “fact” that 25% of US citizens are “fundamentalists” the true figure is between 5% and 7%. That seems incredible until you see Wicker’s very readable analysis. According to Wicker, the fastest growing “religious” movement in the USA is “nonbelievers” – even if there is still a reluctance for various cultural reasons for Americans to identify on a census form as “atheist”. Then too there is a very active Religious Left, of which we normally hear little. Evidence of that may be seen every day on this blog: check “God’s Politics” in the side-bar.


See my 217 posts tagged “Christianity” and 151 tagged “Islam”. Go to Imran Ahmad for a fresh and good-humoured Muslim view and check Phillip Adams interviewing him. See also: “Jessica Stern is an expert on terrorism. She teaches it as a subject at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government, and was recently the Superterrorism Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. In this conversation, first broadcast in 2003/4, Jessica talks about her book which is the result of 4 years research, interviewing a range of Jewish, Christian and Muslim terrorists.”

* 11 August the young, idealistic or alienated: See the sad tale of 18-year-old Jakarta bomber Dani Dwi Permana.

…Friends, neighbours and worshippers at his mosque yesterday said Dani – almost universally described as ”very nice” – was the unlikeliest of mass murderers, albeit someone who was easily persuaded…

His mother lived in Kalimantan after a messy divorce. Things got worse when his father was imprisoned about a year ago for robbery. It was then that Dani seems to have fallen under the spell of Saifuddin. ”Ustad Saifuddin usually spent time with the caretakers [young devotees] at the mosque. Usually they would gather here after evening prayer,” said Harno. ”Sometimes he would go out with them camping. But that didn’t seem to be suspicious because that is what an ustad should do.”

Even so, Dani had clearly become radicalised. According to a school friend, he talked openly of waging jihad, the Islamic notion of struggle that is typically a peaceful pursuit by the devout but is twisted by terrorist groups to justify mass murder…

”We now know that [Saifuddin] was trying to brainwash many young people here. He told these youngsters that American was bad.”

Saifuddin is believed to have groomed up to 10 men from the area. According to Indonesian counter-terrorism sources, Saifuddin is suspected to be one of Noordin Mohammed Top’s most trusted talent spotters. Noordin is thought to have organised the Jakarta bombings on July 17. On the weekend Indonesian police believed they had killed him in a siege but were mistaken.

That last, unfortunately, simply adds to Top’s legend.


20 responses to “Why the religious Right can be dangerous, but…

  1. Aaron

    August 10, 2009 at 9:09 am

    Agreed… dangerously exaggerated. The problem is that so many see the exaggeration and think that it is really a generalization! Ugh!!

  2. Bruce

    August 10, 2009 at 9:38 am

    I wonder if the “puffing” of the likes of Nalliah is a chicken and egg scenario. Are the press giving him so much attention because he’s been humoured by many in politics (current and last PM plus Family First) or has he been humoured by many in politics because the press gives him so much attention.

    Have to say that I refute the notion that the influence of any religious right (or indeed, any political camp) can be measured in percentage of the population. Influence has got more to do with control/influence of institutions and the passing of policy – a small group can have control of a large body politik after all.

    The fact that the religious right number less than some suspect doesn’t detract from the influence of the religious right, and indeed, it makes it even spookier. So few managed to pull off so much?

    The religious right’s (often unlawful) influence within the ranks of the US Army is a particular nasty example.

  3. Neil

    August 10, 2009 at 10:12 am

    Yes, but their influence (on the chicken and egg idea) can be lessened if we all come to realise who they really are, who they actually represent, and stop assisting their already powerful self-publicity by giving them more attention than they merit.

    I should add that Bruce today has an excellent post pointing to more unwitting helpers of jihadist recruitment.

  4. Neil

    August 10, 2009 at 10:40 am

    @ Aaron: thanks for your comment. I commend your site.

  5. Bruce

    August 10, 2009 at 1:09 pm

    I completely agree with this bit:

    Yes, but their influence (on the chicken and egg idea) can be lessened if we all come to realise who they really are, who they actually represent…

    But I think in some cases, at least temporarily, it may be at odds with this bit:

    …and stop assisting their already powerful self-publicity by giving them more attention than they merit.

    Depends on your definition of “merit” I guess, but I think there is value in public education as to how statistically insignificant these people are – both to help counter exaggerated threats, and to recognise high concentrations of power, where they exist, in small portions of the community. Of course, if you consider this kind of attention meritorious, then there’s no contradiction.

    I should add that Bruce today has an excellent post pointing to more unwitting helpers of jihadist recruitment.

    Thanks for the compliment. Although while not denying that the NSS may at times be counterproductive (I’ve got the same kind of niggling doubts about them as I had with Pat Condell, who since went on to confirm my suspicions), I was focusing more on their mis-reporting of the conduct of the ABC, in line with the conspiracy minded belief that the media is willfully self-censorious about Islam. Which I guess could feed into the culture clash, making it worse than it has to be.

    Mainly I took exception because it was even more mind-boggling and stupifying than Ackerman’s attack on Play School for being politically correct brain-washing, for not singing ‘Ba Ba Black Sheep’, when in fact they did sing it.

    There has to be a massive bias blind spot occluding these people’s self-awareness.

  6. Kevin

    August 11, 2009 at 1:56 pm

    Jeez, Neil. You’re really stuck on this idea. You’re truly hoping that if we say often enough that the koran doesn’t preach evil, then the koran and its followers won’t do evil. I’m curious as hell to know where you’ve seen the idea of denying the problem to solve the problem worked in human history. It’s embarrassing to watch this. Bruce seems to be enabling you in this clusterflunk.

    It’s not news to either of you that Christianity hasn’t been used as an excuse to kill someone in a few hundred years, is it?

  7. Neil

    August 11, 2009 at 3:09 pm

    I regard what I am saying as very carefully reasoned. I also believe the approach you take, if we all took it, would make the terrorist recruiters even more effective than they already are. Living in a country — as you do too — where there are actually good citizens who happen to be Muslim should make us very careful about the effect of our words, and very zealous to find common ground. I have over the past few weeks led you to many sites that argue just that from several directions, I have cited the policy of John Howard (which I agree with in this matter) not to mention the present government, I have referred you to experts on terrorism, history, and religion.

    I am happy with my position.

    What you seem to forget too, Kevin, is that between 2001 and 2005 it was part of my job as an ESL teacher at Sydney High to spend time with our Muslim students, some of whom had connections to more radical groups like Hizbut-Tahrir, listen to them, try to steer them away from the worst kinds of radicalism. First, I was dealing with teenage boys — the same age as some of those bombers in Jakarta. Second they were very intelligent. I went to their meetings, and was made very welcome and listened to. I hope I had some effect, and I also learned a lot. How far do you think I would have got, what good would I have done, if I had gone in there in full Kevin mode?

    For an account of all that — of EXPERIENCE please note of real Muslim youth — see Some non-fiction read recently 2b – the personal component (2009) and The Mine and the Islamists: cause for concern? (2006).

    If you can cope with the religious language — all religions have their own religious language — read two examples of Sydney people and groups in Islam that I would see as allies: Sunnis against Extremism and The Global Islamic Youth Centre, Liverpool NSW. That latter says:

    …Muslims living in the West constantly face challenges of having to prove to their fellow Australians that they have nothing to fear and that they can be trusted loved and become assets to the Australian community and live in peace & harmony with their neighbours.

    These challenges facing the Muslim community are only part of the problem. Muslims, as a people and a community can only ever really become part of another society once they have faith in themselves by understanding their own religion, their own history and be comfortable with their own identity. Australia is built on multiculturism. It is more than acceptable to be a Muslim and an Australian at the same time. This is what makes us all proud Australians….

    Sunnis against extremism says:

    …The conclusion is framed in what the trustworthy Prophet peace be upon him said: “Allah rewards for gentleness what He does not reward for violence” [related by Muslim and others]. Clearly, the onus is upon all Muslims to resolve this phenomenon, each through his informed area of expertise and with as much capacity as one could bear. Muslims in Australia and abroad following the orthodox teachings of Islam condemn all forms of terrorism, extremism and social destruction. Thus, it is essential to conquer terrorism and its kin, that governments, nations and the media differentiate between Muslims and terrorists and to further promote that there is no relation between Islam, terrorism and extremism. To execute this objective Muslims throughout the world and particularly in Australia should assert their moderate stand loudly, empowered by textual and logical proofs. They must restate that they are not the ones who exchange conviction for positions, and are not those who disregard the true Islamic fatwa for any agenda or program. Counselling against extremists cannot be achieved only by statements and words, but has to be accompanied with a continuous effort in order to eradicate this social dilemma and save nations and its peoples from its danger. This work requires qualified and diligent individuals trained in deflating the calls of the named al-Jama`ah al-Islamiyyah, the Wahhabis and Hizbut-Tahrir.

    It must be very galling to such people when (as indeed in today’s Sydney Morning Herald) you get letters to the editor hectoring Muslims for not speaking out against terrorism. They do, but they don’t seem to get much air time.

  8. Kevin

    August 11, 2009 at 11:35 pm

    I wish you’d get over this idea that we are giving terrorist recruiters recruiting ammunition. They’ll always have enough of a reason to find recruits, because the koran is so evil. Remember, the 19 men who made America go ballistic in the first place did it simply because we put troops in Saudi Arabia to liberate Kuwait in ’91.

    Plus there’s Israel. And the occasional blasphemous cartoon. And people eating pig parts, sexual promiscuity in our society, homosexuality, etc. The terrorist recruiters will always have crap to bitch about. Get the idea of appeasing them out of your head, because it’s never going to happen.

    I really enjoyed your sunni muslim against extremism quote, “…Muslims throughout the world and particularly in Australia should assert their moderate stand loudly, empowered by textual and logical proofs.” I wish they would! I wish they could. But there is no way that they can win an argument against an extremist, at least if they use the evil koran as source material. The koran sides wholeheartedly with the extremist. That’s why you never see it playing out on the airwaves, and sadly never will.


    I wonder what would have happened if you not only tried to steer your students away from ‘the worst’ parts of islam, but from islam entirely! Imagine how great it would be to free a child from those evil shackles.

  9. Neil

    August 12, 2009 at 7:53 am

    …I wonder what would have happened if you not only tried to steer your students away from ‘the worst’ parts of islam, but from islam entirely!

    What you desire is totally impossible as well as offensive to millions of good people. I prefer the possible.

    Instead of bothering me go and investigate Muslims in Louisiana — much nearer to home. You’ll find a long history. You’ll also find opposition to terrorism.

    We are not on a “crusade” against Islam; we ARE dealing with terrorist extremists. We MUST observe the difference at all times. It is possible to lessen the threat of terrorism through military, security, police and diplomatic action. That is best done with the maximum cooperation of people of good will whatever their background. Anything which reduces the chance of such cooperation weakens the effectiveness of the actions our governments and many others throughout the world are engaged in.

    And yes, there are aspects of Israeli government policy that (along with many Israelis and certainly with many Australian Jews I know) need to be looked at long and hard. Ditto of course for many of Israel’s neighbours. But that is an area where generally speaking I prefer to let those involved speak. And they do. (Check my Israel category some time.) And yes, bear in mind I worked for two years in an Orthodox Jewish school.

    Another thing I liked about SBHS was that the Jewish students had their lunchtime prayer and discussion meeting in the room next door to the Islamic Students Society. Never a problem. I should also add that the efforts I described in the previous comment were not singlehanded. A great asset was a member of the Maths staff, Anglo and educated in Texas, who is a Muslim.

    Check out Tikno in Indonesia again too.

  10. Kevin

    August 12, 2009 at 4:05 pm

    I took you up on that idea and investigated islam in America. Here’s what I found. Hmm, it sounds very similar to islam everywhere else in the world. Murderous. Just a quick fyi – that young lady’s future is still in doubt. Converting to another religion is a death sentence in islam, even in the land of the free and the home of the brave.

    Pray for her, if you are religious. It could go either way at this point.

    “We are not on a “crusade” against Islam; we ARE dealing with terrorist extremists. “

    Eh. Kinda. Not really though. You’re dealing with terrorists once they’ve been created. You’re not trying to stamp out the creation mechanism (it’s called ‘islam’).

    *sigh* Yet again, I must admit that I’m defeated. You’re really never going to admit that the disease is islam, are you :(. It makes me sad for you.

  11. Neil

    August 12, 2009 at 10:41 pm

    That is a bad case, an extreme case, and of course I don’t defend it. If the girl were to be killed there is no doubt at all an Australian court would regard this as murder.

    On the other hand see Muslims4Jesus to hear from Muslims who have converted to Christianity and lived. I worked at one time with an Iranian Christian convert. There is an interesting list here.

    I (like quite a few Muslims) am no fan of the strict rules on apostasy in many parts of the Muslim world. Sometimes this is as much cultural as religious. This Muslim scholar rejects the death penalty for apostasy, though he is still pretty hard line, though what he advocates (except in the case of treason being involved) is no harsher than some Christian groups such as the Exclusive Brethren. See also Freedom of religion, apostasy and Islam by Hassan Saeed, and this discussion in The American Muslim.

    Subhani’s treatment of the controversial subject of apostasy is admirable, seeking, as it does, to argue from within an Islamic paradigm against dominant Muslim understandings on the question. However, while the distinction that Subhani draws between ‘ordinary’, ‘non-aggressive’ apostates and ‘combatant’ apostates is valid, he does not provide any criterion for deciding as to precisely what constitutes ‘aggression’ and ‘conspiracy’ against Islam, which he seems to argue merits the death penalty. Surely, these need to be clearly laid down and not left to arbitrary decision. Leaving the definition of ‘conspiracy’ or ‘aggression’ undefined and vague will certainly allow for all manner of abuse, leading even to the murder of apostates on the flimsiest of grounds. One must bear in mind that even so innocuous matters as wearing shirts and pants or introducing English in the madrasas are sometimes branded by some fringe groups as ‘conspiracies’ against Islam, and it is not unlikely that the mere change of faith by a Muslim can be similarly construed.

    This said, Subhani’s case is a very welcome contribution to a debate that has been raging for centuries in Muslim circles, often with frightful results. The argument for freedom of religion and conscience that it makes is surely a major advance on the position of the traditional ulama. Today, more voices like his need to be heard, and louder than ever before, in order to critique both the the hidebound traditionalist ulama as well as hardened Islamophobes, both of whom see Islam in terms of a monolith, defined in dry, legalistic terms and having no room for internal diversity and debate.

    I live, of course, in a country where there is no death penalty at all for anything, and am extremely glad this is the case.

    No you won’t convince me because I regard your position as impractical. Reform of Islam is however possible and has plenty of advocates in the Muslim world. Some of those reformist sites I have pointed you to in earlier comments. You need to get a much broader, more realistic take on the background, tradition, and variety of belief and practice in the second largest religion in the world.

    Track what Irfan Yusuf has said about Christianity. It’s a lesson for Muslims generally, but also in its way a lesson to us about how we should talk about Islam.

  12. Kevin

    August 15, 2009 at 2:33 pm

    I just get the feeling that in an argument about the polio virus, you might say, “Look, many times people get polio and suffer no debilitation at all! So you can’t say that polio is bad. It’s the lesions on motor nerves that some of the disenfranchised polio viruses cause that are the real problem. After all, we’ve lived with the polio virus for fifteen hundred years [quoting you from memory here, apologies if I got the number wrong]. So it must not be a bad thing.”

    I bet that many people in 1959 considered destroying the polio virus to be ‘impractical’. But it was the right thing to do. Destroying a pernicious virus is just like destroying a pernicious ideology. It’s the right thing to do. It was right in the 1940s, and it’s right today.

  13. Neil

    August 15, 2009 at 4:34 pm

    Your argument is an analogy, Kevin, which can be OK for illustration but proves nothing — unless Islam actually IS a virus, which it isn’t. Viruses don’t think, have families, create and sustain civilisations, or demonstrate varieties of opinion and culture. Islam does all of those. There is no ideological anti-viral, and wars against ideas are the worst kind. Democracy, for example, is a strong idea and people, whatever their religion or background, can be persuaded to see its advantages — even if conservatives in the UK in the 19th century regarded it (after the French Revolution and the revolutions of 1848) as a very bad idea. Nonetheless, it triumphed in the end. (Your own founding fathers had big arguments about how far democracy should go — that’s why the created those “checks and balances”, not only to ensure the President didn’t assume too much power but also the prevent the people — or the mob — assuming too much either.)

    Just as democracy has survived the many onslaughts against it, including total war and cold war, so it is likely some form of Islam will survive all setbacks and wars against it. It certainly has so far. But there are, and this is a fact, Islamic modernisers who are dead against their own extremists, and that is where our hope lies. Indonesia is a fascinating case, the biggest Muslim country in the world and moving at the moment quite clearly from dictatorship to democracy. We need to encourage that kind of movement, not waste our time thinking all Muslims are so differnt somehow that they cannot adapt their beliefs and traditions to a changing world. Admittedly hardliners have had problems with that, and thus made problems for Islam at large, and for us. The “side” I am on is the one that accepts the right of people to follow Islam but not the right of anyone to enforce belief through violence.

    I am far from alone in thinking this way.

  14. Kevin

    August 16, 2009 at 2:34 am

    I think the term ‘allegory’ is more appropriate than ‘analogy’ in this case. Because islam, much like all ideologies, ideas, beliefs, etc., spreads like a virus or bacterium. It’s actually one of the best things about ideas. They can be spread ‘virally’, so to speak.

    Sadly, it’s a double-edged sword. Just as we must fight against evil viruses and bacterium that want to kill us, while supporting helpful bacterium (like yogurt and buttermilk innoculators) and viral bacteriophages, we must fight against evil ideologies that want to kill us.

    “There is no ideological anti-viral, and wars against ideas are the worst kind.”

    Ok, now I KNOW that you were a college professor at some liberal arts school, since you deny history so vigorously. War, as you no doubt know but are suppressing, is the only answer to murderous ideologies. And it’s actually fairly effective. Seen any nazi or ‘die for your emperor’ countries pop up since 1945?

    Heh. You implied that cultures rooted in islam are civil. Good one! Want some photos of the repercussions of not supporting islam in those countries? Yes, islam is civil in the way Stalin or Mao were civil.

    You make me angry, Neil.

  15. Neil

    August 16, 2009 at 7:26 am

    Analogy or allegory — neither is a proof.

    Did war bring down the Soviet Union, or was it rather that after a tragically long time the ideology imploded? (That and the invasion of Afghanistan, which remains a worry for us now, although I support the effort in Afghanistan as I have said before.)

    War: World War I was not an ideological war, but a good old-fashioned imperial war carrying on from the unfinished business of the 19th century. It in turn gave the Bolsheviks their opportunity in Russia, and, along with Versailles, created the conditions for the rise of Nazism and Hitler. It also set Japan on its collision course which ended in 1945, although Japan was an ally especially of Britain in the early 20th century — it modelled its navy on Britain’s. For centuries the Japanese feudal system — up until that American guy opened Japan up for trade and the Shogunate fell to the Meiji restoration of the Emperor’s power — carried on with its notional idea of the God-Emperor threatening no-one in the rest of the world except its immediate neighbours, Korea in particular. Industrialisation, militarism, and a hunger for the resources Japan lacks led to the 1930s invasions of Manchuria and China, the alliance with Germany and Italy, and what followed.

    Again, I point to places like Indonesia where there has been real progress in terms of democracy and human rights and the wisdom of supporting all Muslims who turn away from the extremist versions, or perversions, of their faith. Remember too that is the key to Iraq surviving, to Pakistan surviving, and so on. War or no war, democratic or not democratic, those and similar countries will remain Muslim because that is the very basis of their societies and culture. The issue is what brand of Islam comes out on top. Tarring all Muslims as beasts does little to support those who are not a threat — whether we like their religion or not is beside the point. Even George Bush and John Howard agree with me on that one!

    (I came first in Asian History at Sydney University many moons ago — Japan was one of the elements in the course. Also, I taught in high schools, not liberal arts colleges which we don’t actually have in Australia, except for two years working at Sydney University in Teacher Training, and my subjects were English and History.)

  16. Kevin

    August 16, 2009 at 8:25 am

    I don’t believe that all war is good. Is that what you are reading from my comments?

    World War I was not an ideological war, but a good old-fashioned imperial war carrying on from the unfinished business of the 19th century.

    Ok, so it’s not relevant to this discussion, as we are talking about wars of ideas, or in the case of islam, wars of civilization vs barbarism. I’m intrigued by the way you blamed ‘that American guy’ for Japan’s desire to conquer other nations, though. Sounds a bit revisionist. It’s a discussion for another time.

    Again, I point to places like Indonesia where there has been real progress in terms of democracy and human rights and the wisdom of supporting all Muslims who turn away from the extremist versions, or perversions, of their faith.

    Holy cow. I point to places like Indonesia too! Where people die, Australians die simply because some horrible religion supports the idea of killing kafir (~nonbelievers in the devil-god described as allah in the koran).

    I wish you’d stop worrying about ‘what brand of islam’ is the best. They ALL suck and are all deadly. Let’s spend some time worrying about ending islam itself instead. If we did that, a large part of the world’s problems would be solved. There are other problems, but this is the most pressing.

  17. Neil

    August 16, 2009 at 9:09 am

    I didn’t blame Commodore Perry, but his successful mission was the beginning of Japan’s modern phase and all, good and bad, which followed.

    As for your last paragraph, we have descended into simply contradicting each other, except that it isn’t just me you are contradicting but a whole host of people whose opinions I obviously respect more than you do. I am well aware of Australians dying in Indonesia; one of my friends was in Bali for the 2002 bombing for starters, and because of that he shares (and has influenced) my reading of Islam.

    I do not support the Clash of Civilization thesis for much the same reason that I do not support the Marxist interpretation of history. Both are over-deterministic and ignore vital human factors.

  18. Kevin

    August 16, 2009 at 11:50 am

    Sorry to hear about your friend being in Bali when supporters of islam bombed that building, as supporters of islam are wont to do. You didn’t make clear how or whether he survived the attack by islamists. I hope he did!

    But you said ‘…he shares…’, so I’m guessing that he DID survive the islamic attack. If I’m reading this correctly, then that’s great news! A few questions:

    HOW did he survive the attack by murderous supporters of islam? Was he just in the town, and not the building that jihadist islam supporters destroyed to kill innocent people? Or was he actually there when followers of islam killed Australians in the name of their god?

    Could you get him to report on why he supports or defends the murderous behavior of islam that has occurred for ~1,500 years, and has proven exceptionally murderous in the past decade? Not you’re hearsay, but him, in his own words?

    I’d love to read it.

  19. Neil

    August 16, 2009 at 12:13 pm

    Easy: here and here. He would see your position as tragically inadequate, I’m afraid.

    At least, however, you are one of my most avid readers, Kevin. 😉

  20. Kevin

    August 16, 2009 at 5:31 pm

    Every weekend, my Aussie!


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