Israel Zangwill described anti-Semitism as being rooted in the human tendency to have ‘dislike for the unlike’. For the Jews with their peculiar religion and culture the result was a cycle of suspicion and prejudice from the societies in which they lived. For Zangwill the only solution was a Zionist State where Jewish people could live free from the repeated persecutions and purges that had been their experience. Only in their own land could they escape from being the scapegoats on which the grievances of others were frequently heaped.
This recent terrorist attacks in the UK have led to calls for widespread clampdowns on extremism and extremist groups. There is though the danger that such demands move beyond tackling terrorism and become a justification for acting against groups that wider society just doesn’t like.
Now of course, incitements to violence or the promotion of threatening behaviour should be challenged and, as is already the case, be illegal. No-one has a right to inflict injury, intimidate or coerce those with whom they disagree, however profoundly, on matters of religious, political or philosophical belief.
Indeed this cherished protection of ‘conscience’ in Western society is a freedom borne out of the trauma and bloodshed of trying to do otherwise. It was a lesson first learnt by the church (in the post-Reformation disputes and wars) and which subsequently became a foundation of our democratic society.
So freedom from such assault and bullying should be vigorously upheld – and those who seek to perpetrate such acts confronted with the full force of the law.
However, the calls to ‘clampdown on extremism’ are worryingly being extended way beyond this area. For some, in the political and media world, it seems that any religious beliefs or cultural practices that conflict with their own secular/liberal views are by definition ‘extremist’.
This was illustrated in an interview with Archbishop Justin Welby on Radio 4’s Today programme (5/6/17). The interviewer raised (legitimately) the issue of religious belief being a factor in the London Bridge attack – he then went on to ask whether Islamic meetings where men and women were separated should be tolerated. For the interviewer such a practice was clear evidence of misogyny – to which he added, the church had also been guilty of (although probably not as much as the BBC and other media outlets – I’ve seen sitcoms and tabloids from the 1970s!). Welby responded by noting that such separation is common in synagogues too - and he could have added many African churches.
The fact is, throughout history men and women have often sat or met separately in a wide range of settings – practices that may have nothing to do with misogyny but reflect legitimate cultural and religious sensibilities. Yet something that most people in most places have found unremarkable is now seized on as dangerous and objectionable simply because it doesn’t chime with early C21 Western culture (which of course, represents a pretty thin slice of the totality of human wisdom and experience).
A lot has been made in recent years about ‘British Values’ and the insistence that everyone in these islands subscribe to them. But what about those British people who don’t subscribe to secular/liberal ‘British’ values when it comes to matters such as sex, abortion, the obliteration of gender and the meaning of life? Indeed one MP has already branded traditional Christian views on Marriage as extremist. So people who are peaceable, hard-working and law-abiding citizens ought to be marginalised and distrusted – because like Jews in medieval Europe they have beliefs and lifestyles that seem odd to the wider culture.
In Russia the Jehovah’s Witness organisation is facing a complete ban for being ‘extremist’. So a peaceable (if somewhat niche) religious group is being closed down by the State for the crime of ‘sowing religious discord’ – which means, as many observers have put it, they’re not ‘Russian’ enough and don’t fit in. Of course the UK is vastly different from Russia but nonetheless a pressurised government and an angry majority population can quickly be tempted to heap their grievances on anyone who dissents from their worldview.
There is a real risk of an over-zealous (albeit well intentioned) desire to tackle terrorism ending up turning non-conformist groups into scapegoats. Not because they’re going to harm anyone but simply because nothing fuels ‘dislike for the unlike’ as much as fear.