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The Rise of Religious Extremism: impacts and responses

Workshop report (AEPF 7, Cluster 1: Peace and Security)

Workshop held in AEPF 7, Beijing, October 14th 2008
co-organised by

  • Centre Lebret-Irfed
  • Labour Party Pakistan
  • Asia-Africa Development and Exchange Society of China
Concept note
Workshop Report


In analyzing our societies today, we can no longer ignore the impact and influence of the drastically changing religious picture on the geo-political situation of countries and regions. Ecology, demography, rights, economy, personal life, international relations, all these elements are in one way or another marked by the upheavals that have come about in the religious sphere. On the other hand, we should also ask : has globalization, and more recently, the U.S. policy of « war and terror » been key in these upheavals ?

The rise of religious extremism in many of our societies is one phenomenon which not only poses a strong danger and threat to people’s lives and security and to the consolidation of a more democratic and pluralistic political life but has also reached such an amplitude where terror reigns and solutions have become even more difficult to achieve.

While this workshop aims to address this particular issue of the rise of religious extremism, it will also be the opportunity to speak about the relationship between religion and politics in general. We hope to be able to arrive at a better collective understanding of the phenomenon in the light of the various contexts in Asia and in Europe. And, more than simply trying to comprehend how this phenomenon has developed, the question « how can we counter religious extremism and what can we do together to fight this ? » would definitely be more challenging for us. The question is not simple to answer and those who are confronted with the problem on a daily basis know this difficulty.

The workshop should also provide us with the opportunity to bring persons and organizations involved in the AEPF network and confronted by these problems in their work and activities to link up and explore ways of developing the spirit of solidarity amongst each other.


Workshop Organizers and link persons:

  • Développement et Civilisations Lebret-Irfed (DCLI) – France (Ms. Sally Rousset)
  • Labour Party Pakistan (Mr. Farooq Tariq)
  • Asia-Africa Development and Exchange Society of China (Ms. Wang Feng)


  • Mr. Yang Guang (Research fellow, Institute of Western Asia and Northern African Studies, CASS, China)
  • Ms. Sally Rousset (Développement et Civilisations – Lebret-Irfed, France)

First part : Contribution of panelists:

  • Mr. Farooq Sulehria (Labour Education Foundation, Pakistan) on The rise of political Islam;
  • Mr. Silvo Devetak (Institute for Ethnic and Regional Studies, Maribor, Slovenia) on Religious and Ethnic extremism in Europe;
  • Ms. Wang Junrong (Research Fellow, Institute of Religions Studies, CASS) on The Influence of Islamic Revivalism in World politics;
  • Ms. Pushpa Bhave (Pakistan-India People’s Forum for Peace and Democracy) on Religious fundamentalism and the Indian experience
  • Ms. Elga Sarapung (Interfidei, Yogyakarta, Indonesia) on Christian Fundamentalism in Indonesia.

Second part:
Debate and testimonies on initiatives and solutions.
Discussion on concrete recommendations for AEPF and ASEM.

Aside from reactions/contributions from workshop participants, two representatives from the preparatory workshops co-organized by DCLI in Malaysia and and Belgium shared the essential points that came up in these workshops on the issues of religious fundamentalism and religion-based political movements:

  • Ms Musdah Mulia, (ICRP-Indonesia, for the Asian Workshop);
  • Mr. Antoine Sondag (Secours catholique and DCLI -France, for the European Workshop)

Rapporteur: Mr. Darwis Khudori (France/Indonesia)

Note : This workshop in China was preceded by 3 preparatory workshops:
  • in Europe (Paris, France, March 2008 and Brussels, Belgium, September 2008), organised by DCLI (Développement et Civilisations – Lebret-Irfed): “The rise of fundamentalisms and the impact on “living together” (See workshop reports in French: Paris and Brussels );
  • in Asia (Kedah, Malaysia, July 2008), organised by Darwis Khudori, Professor at University of Le Havre (France) and member of DCLI: “The role of religion based political movements: a threat or a chance for peace, security and development among nations?” (See presentation of the publication )


The contributions of the speakers and participants can be grouped into three main points:

I. The controversial concept of fundamentalism

A conceptual problem of the workshop was raised leading to the change in the workshop title from “religious fundamentalism” to “religious extremism”. The change was done in Beijing during the preparatory workshop meeting as the Chinese speaker, Ms Wang Junrong questioned the accuracy of the term “fundamentalism”, defending the use of the term “extremism”). According to her, “fundamentalism” was first used in the United States at the beginning of the 20th century to speak about the phenomenon of religious movements which led the Christians (Protestants) to go back to the “foundational” elements of Christianity. In the Muslim World, the term “fundamentalism” is understood in two meanings: on the one hand, it means going back to the initial elements of Islam, the spirit as well as the formal and institutional elements; on the other, it means going back to the initial message and spirit of Islam, which do not necessarily adopt its formal and institutional elements, and which is not in contradiction with modern civilisation. Insisting on the use of “extremism” as the acceptable term by both secular and religious circles, the change of the title was for her very important for mutual understanding and benefit between the secular and the religious communities.

The argument of Wan Junrong was strengthened by Siti Musdah Mulia (Indonesia) in her report on the AEPF preparatory workshop held in Malaysia. The Malaysia workshop used the title “The Rise of Religion-based Political Movements” instead of the “Rise of Religious Fundamentalism” for two reasons: 1. The term “fundamentalism” is a subject of controversy among the scholars as well as the activists of religion-based movements. 2. What is called “fundamentalism” is just a part of a larger phenomenon, that is the rise of social and political movements based on religions.

Nevertheless, the majority of the speakers, mostly the non-academic ones, have been using the term “fundamentalism” during their inputs and during the debate. For the Pakistani participants, the term used in Pakistan today is “religious fundamentalism” without ambivalence, as this phenomenon and its negative effects are very much present in the everyday life of the population.

The workshop held in Brussels in September, also dealt with that question, and agreed to the following meaning when using the word “fundamentalism”:

  • A strict respect of foundational elements of the religion and the refusal to put them in historical perspective;
  • The refusal of debate, interpretation and mediation;
  • The consideration that only one way leads to the truth;
  • The exclusion (or even destruction) of anyone not being part of the group.

II. Analysis of the phenomenon

Role of the Media
The mainstream media play a very important role in provoking religious extremism. Farooq Sulehria (Pakistan/Sweden) pointed out the dictatorship of Western media that tend to make a very simple stereotype of Muslim societies (especially in Pakistan) as characterised by the women wearing the burka and the men with a big beard. Pushpa Bhave (India) pointed out those who tend to equalise individual with community and religion with nation: when a Muslim commits a crime, then all the Muslims are criminals; when a religious group of a country does something harmful, they then say that the whole nation is terrorist.

Role of Religion-based Movements in Society
Not all religion-based movements are harmful to societies. Silvo Devetak (Slovenia) gave some examples from Eastern Europe where religion-based movements were helpful in promoting democracy and human rights in the 90s.

Reporting on the Malaysia preparatory workshop, Siti Musdah Mulia (Indonesia) identified four roles that religion-based movements play: as social service provider (hospitals, schools, orphan houses, social housing, etc.), as a means of emancipation (promotion of democracy and human rights, access to political participation and to social integration), as disguised political movements (in the totalitarian and authoritarian regimes) and as pressure groups (in the democratic regimes).

She also noted two tendencies in religion-based movements: those who go for community egoism and those for community pluralism, each of which has two variants. Among the adherents of community egoism, there are the radicalists who wish to apply their conviction to the whole society in a radical way, including violence and terror. This is what many people call “fundamentalism”, “radicalism”, or “extremism”. There are also the gradualists who choose to apply their conviction in a gradual way, including political parties. On the other hand, the defenders of community pluralism are characterised by two attitudes: tolerance and altruism. The real threat for peace and security comes in fact from only a variant of community egoism supporters, that is, the radicalist one. While the real chance for peace and security comes particularly from the altruist variant of community pluralism movements.

Politicisation of Religions
What is harmful is the “politicisation” of religion or the “wrong use” of religion as political tool. “Even non-believers use religion to gain political power”, denounced Pushpa Bhave (India). This also happened in Central and Eastern Europe when religions were used in the interest of militarism and nationalism, especially in the Balkans.

A question was raised by Antoine Sondag (France): How is it that the mainstream debate switched from socio-political (class-based) categories to cultural (religion-based) categories? Encouraging religious-based mobilisations, designing certain religious groups as scapegoats, focusing and over-emphasising on one religion’s trends: all these mechanisms allow certain social groups to pursue in a hidden way political objectives and to prevent people from demanding for social and political accountability. The impact of religious extremist trends is strengthened when people feel “lost in the city” as what happens to migrants, or when social and political spheres offer no other alternatives for taking care of people’s vital problems. As one of the participants said: “Weak state (when failing to address social questions), strong religion”…

The question was also raised as to whether or not Church intervention could have positive effects on political and state decisions. As a response, actual examples were given showing the negative consequences of religious intervention in politics.

“Minority” vs. “Majority” religions
Religious extremism also exists with religious minority groups. Elga Sarapung (Indonesia) gave some examples from Indonesia where religious extremism grew among the Christians, a minority religion in Ambon and Poso, under pressure from the majority Muslims (the introduction of Islamic law or Shari’a among others) and also due to a “minority” complex and feelings of fear. But a strong return to religion-based politics can be observed both in Islamic fundamentalism (majority religion) and in Christian fundamentalism (minority discriminated religion). However, Pushpa Bhave, basing herself on the violence directed in India by Hindu majority groups against other minority groups, noted that extremist majority communalist groups can be more dangerous than the minority ones.

Another reason why Christian Chinese in Indonesia also tend to be extremists is due to the fact that they are a “double minority”: ethnically and religiously. In Europe, religious extremism have happened among the migrant workers (especially Muslims) who are confronted with a double problem: the discrimination and the incompatibility of their religious traditions with those established in the host countries (family and individual laws, the question of polygamy, etc.).

Religious extremism and the global context
Religious extremism cannot be separated from the global issues: hegemony of superpower, territorial occupation, globalisation. For Silvo Devetak (Slovenia), religious extremism is a part of the planetary crisis that raises a worrying question whether humanity will be able to solve the problem. Farooq Sulehria links the rise of political Islam to the growing weakness of left parties in the Muslim world, during the 1990s after the fall of Soviet Union, on the one hand; and, on the other hand, to the loss of credibility of the populist anti-imperialist mass-followed parties, such as Popular Party (Bhutto’s) in Pakistan. Religion became the only anti-imperialist available platform. He strongly pointed out that religious extremists such as the Talibans in no way represent an alternative against imperialism: they themselves exploit, oppress, kill those who do not share their beliefs…

Wan Junrong (China) pointed out that among the movements of religious extremism, those based on Islam address global issues, are spread all over the whole world and form trans-national networks, while those based on other religions (Buddhism, Christianity or Hinduism) operate limitedly at local or national levels.

Diversity and dialogue
Silvo Devetak pointed out the deep gap between Eastern and Western Europe: they know very little of each other, and the main European religion (Christianity) shows very little interest for the other religions, be those historically present in Europe (Judaism) or currently growing in the number of believers (Islam). Europe is also going through inter-ethnic frictions that could be a major source of division (the “Kosovo syndrome”). Reconciliation has not begun yet, and new approaches are needed to go beyond historical grievances and stereotypes. This crisis of identities is a very favourable ground for the growth of religious extremisms. Europe is facing a real challenge: it should be a community of persons, it needs a strong affirmation of the common democratic values that make “unity in diversity” possible. This also means to take into account new values brought about by the social evolution of the European space.

Interfaith dialogue provides a space in which people can sit and talk together:

  • How do we view each other?
  • What are our hopes for the future of the country?
  • What can we do in common? How can we bridge our differences?

One of the experiences shared during the Brussels workshop was the use of “inter-convictional dialogue” in local communities as a means of understanding each other better. In such dialogue, one addresses not only the spiritual dimension but takes the whole person into account (the person as a believer or a non-believer, as a worker, as a parent, as a user of social services, as a resident of a neighbourhood or a village, etc.). The person should not be seen only as a Christian or as a Muslim or as an Hindu, etc.. This avoids getting fixed in direct doctrinal confrontations and gives more chances of arriving at consensual and practical solutions.

Mechanisms of violence and false solutions
Pushpa Bhave (India) analysed some of the mechanisms of violence: As mentioned above, by equating one person with a whole group (e.g. a terrorist act perpetrated by a Muslim is viewed as if the act is endorsed by the whole community) and by equating one religion with the nation (speaking of “Hindustan” instead of Bharat to name the country), the dominant Hindu class creates an atmosphere of fear, and can instigate hatred leading to violent actions against non-Hindu groups. The latter and the fact that so many people all over the world support hedious acts clearly show that terrorist legitimacy relies on a strong psychological dimension, dealing with the capacity of taking power on minds. It is thus not a military problem, and military solutions prove to be counter-productive. Farooq Tariq (Labour Party of Pakistan) agreed with Pushpa: “You can’t bomb ideas”.

Civil society organisations have a pre-eminent role to play: their ideas, if put in practice, can be much stronger than fundamentalist ones. The true way to prevent fundamentalist violence is through education, both formal (State’s responsibility) and informal one (civil society’s responsibility). But education itself is not enough. The question is how to empower people so that they influence policy-making and ensure that their problems are attended to. This leads to the issue of participation and to the link between representative democracy and participatory democracy.

III. Conclusions and recommendations

Religious extremism is a growing threat and danger to human society. Its causes go beyond religions as such: religions have been abused as a means to achieve political goals.

In order to address the causes of religious extremism, the workshop participants recommend that:

1. Civil society organisations (CSOs) should continue to fight for peace, security, human rights, social justice, equality and poverty alleviation.

2. The State should provide enabling environment and institutions to ensure equal access to the resources of life and freedom of expression.

3. Religion-based approach of political and social engagement should transcend differences and focus more on common human-centred values. Religion should not be hijacked by religious leaders with personal agendas.

4. Special emphasis should be put on the role of education in the fight against religious extremism.

5. Special emphasis should also be put on the inter-and-intraconvictional dialogues at local, national, regional as well as international levels (the term “conviction” is used instead of “faith” or “religion” for its larger scope including those who do not believe in religion or in God).

6. When using dialogue as a mean of reaching better understanding and living together, one should address all the dimensions of the person, and not only the religious dimension.

Prepared by: Darwis Khudori and Isabelle Duquesne (DCLI, France)

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