Copenhagen shootings: What do all acts of terrorism have in common aside from death and tragedy? Unwavering faith

Whether it's religious or not, when people stop questioning authority and believe they're doing best then nothing is out of bounds

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The Independent Online

Extremism has nothing whatsoever to do with religion. At least, that’s what some commentators are saying in the aftermath of this weekend’s attacks in Copenhagen. But are they wrong?

By now the usual platitudes are deployed with impressive speed, and not just by bleeding heart liberals, but world leaders too. The murderers of Charlie Hebdo were "not representative" of religion. Boko Haram has nothing to do with Islam, which is a "religion of peace"; and there is "nothing in religion" that justifies acts of terror.

The man suspected of carrying out the attacks in Copenhagen is believed to have been radicalised in the country’s jails. And so talk has now predictably turned to what "provoked" his radicalism and the subsequent outburst of murderous rage. Was it foreign policy? Was it western racism? Was it suffering on the West Bank? Religion is after all the cry of righteous indignation in a crooked world, is it not? The "sigh of the oppressed creature", as Karl Marx famously put it.

Yet arguments like this stand up only as long as you avert your eyes to the giant elephant in the room – faith. An unshakeable belief in infallible authority, faith is capable of inspiring tremendous good, but also of making a person believe that a goldfish is a race horse.

This in essence is the problem: once you stop questioning authority nothing is out of bounds; it simply boils down to what your particular (religious or secular) deity commands of you.

Whether yours is the "one true" religion is beside the point; for once something is granted absolute status there is always a risk that someone with a different idea of the Good News will pick up the baton and run with it.


For those who still don’t get it, the previous century ought to stand as an abject lesson in what happens when societies are gripped by utopian manias. In the name of totalitarian ideologies, millions were slaughtered because people thought certain thoughts and as a consequence performed certain actions.

As the great historian of Stalinism Robert Conquest puts it, the human tragedies of Communism and Fascism stemmed “not so much from problems as from solutions, not from forces outside human control but from ideas, and actions dictated by ideas”.

The gulf between the Russian steppes and the streets of Copenhagen is not nearly as vast as it might seem. Utopian ideas, whether religious or secular, whether the product of Islam or the Communist Manifesto, have an awful tendency to produce dystopian consequences.

A human being will never be a lump of clay that can be moulded to fit the exact formulation of a text; and if you are utterly convinced you going directly to paradise it is not unreasonable to want to squash underfoot like a piece of rotten fruit anyone that stands in your way. As the Latin saying goes, Corruptio optimi pessima – the corruption of the best is the worst. The greatest cruelties will always be devised by those who are sure they are doing good. Ideas really do matter.

There are two things to take from this. Encouragingly, we can rest assured that extremism is not confined to Islam. In another time and place we might just as easily be lamenting Christian fascists or Stalinist zealots. What matters is not whether one believes in an unquestionable heavenly God or an infallible earthly one; it is the attachment that poses the problem.

However, while Islam cannot be held uniquely responsible for fanaticism, there is little reason to let religion (and we ought to view Communism and Fascism as forms of secular religion) off the hook.

The mere notion of infallible or "sacred" texts will always carry with it a level of certainty that is incompatible with the imperfect human condition. Ideas ought to be our servants and never our masters, yet unfortunately many people appear to need a big idea to get them out of bed in the morning.

I'm unsure who first said it, but a motto we might adopt is to "follow those that seek the truth and run from those who claim to have found it". But most importantly, the next time a ranting ideologue of whatever stripe appears on the television we should take their word for it. They probably mean it.