Is Religious Extremism the Biggest Threat to World Peace

Abstract on Religious Extremism

Religious extremists used to occupy society’s margins. Today, religious extremism seems to be everywhere — from ISIS’ brutal battlefields to lone-wolf terrorist attacks in the U.S., UK, France and Sweden, to name a few. According to the Global Terrorism Index, religious extremism has become the main driver of terrorism in the world. And if religious extremism is crossing geographic boundaries, it is also leaping religious boundaries — there are examples of extremism in every major world religion.

The report found that in 2013 there was a 60 percent increase in the number of deaths due to terrorism over 2012, and that two-thirds of those deaths were attributable to four groups considered religious extremists: Boko Haram, the Taliban, ISIS (also known as ISIL or the Islamic State group) and al-Qaida.

In 2017 the report indicated a global decline in the number of deaths from terrorist attacks to 25,673 people, which is a 22 per cent improvement from the peak in 2014. In contrast, and more disturbingly the report indicates that the geographical distribution of terrorist attacks is increasing.

With the rise of religious extremism has come the populist use of the word “fundamentalist” to indicate anyone who associates with religious extremism. In particular it has become synonymous with Muslim extremism. This is a dangerous blurring of two distinct terminologies. Originally, “fundamentalist” strictly referred to a swath of deeply conservative Christians, predominantly in the American South, who in the early 20th century reacted strongly against what they saw as the encroachment of dangerous new ideas, such as evolution, biblical criticism, and liberal theology.

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They saw those trends as undermining the basics of the faith, and so they tried to lay down and enforce a core set of non-negotiable beliefs, known as “the Fundamentals. Experts caution that fundamentalism has different characteristics and histories in different faiths and use of the word should be used with caution. The association between religion and violence and various forms of repression is a paramount concern and a source of fierce debate today, and the term fundamentalist is often invoked as a one-size-fits-all explanation. But attributing every problem to religious fundamentalism does not do justice to the complexity of the issues involved, to fundamentalists or even to religion in general. It’s critical to gain and communicate a deeper understanding of fundamentalism.

The truth is, religion is not a conduit through which people commit acts of terror on others. The perversion of it is what truly instigates terrorism. Religion don’t usually actually preach violence, because it goes against the practices and cultures that are instilled into you through religious teaching. However, when something becomes radicalised, it tends to become a lot more perverted which results in a divergence from the original intent. That is what we have today. A perversion of the Islamic or any other faith. Unfortunately, hardly anyone is looking at addressing the real problem.

What of Other Forms of Religious Extremism?

The fight against religious extremism has been portrayed to be a battle against Muslims with very little mention of other forms of extremism in the popular press, The Ku Klux Klan is an American group of white supremacists who claim to be affiliated with Christianity, yet very few people even mention their name. They have tortured and killed thousands of people, specifically blacks and other minorities, and yet there is very little mention of them.

So, is religion the root of the problem or are there social issues such as social exclusion, poverty, perceived failure of justice and repression which have given rise to extremism? What are governments, communities and individuals doing to combat it, if anything? Can the situation be rectified, and the issues of religious extremism be resolved and the potential threat to stability and peace be resolved? Or are we doomed to failure and an ever increasingly intolerant and violent world?

Objectives of Discussion

  1. The main objective of this discussion is to access the claim that religion is the most divisive factor in the elusive search for ‘world peace’. Students will be confronted by assumptions and terminology that needs to be critically examined. In unpacking the terminology students will gain an insight into their own perspective on the issue and will develop key skills in critical self-reflection.
  2.  In challenging the assumption that Islam is the main extremist religious group, students will be asked to honestly assess whether this is a reality or distorted simplistic view of global conflict. Students will be encouraged to give examples of religious extremism outside of Islam and if extreme beliefs are limited only to religions.
  3. This discussion will also examine language such as ‘fundamentalist’ as well as ‘extremist’, discussions should take place surrounding the use of such language in academia and in the media and whether or not the terms we use help or hinder our understanding of religious extremism.

Questions Raised and Discussion Structure

Hypothetical for Educator: After another bomb explodes killing people in the thousands, the United Nations calls for a global response to the ‘threat of religious extremism’. There is much debate however whether this call is simply a ‘knee-jerk’ reaction to a horrific event, or if we should examine our own attitudes towards religious extremism and whether or not they have in reality been effective in dealing with these threats. There is also some question as to what ‘response’ would look like and whether or not this would only exacerbate the situation.

  • How would we define religious extremism? Or how do we define an ‘extreme belief’?
  • Is there a difference between religious extremism and religious fundamentalism?
  • Islam is often what we associate with religious extremism, is this a fair assessment based on the state of world security or over exposure by the media?
  • What other factors contribute to conflicts around the globe and are any of them higher in importance than religion?
  • Is it unfair for counter-terrorism to target religious and minority groups? Or are they simply a pragmatic reality of security?
  • Can you give examples of other religious groups that perpetuate violence in the name of their religion both now and in history?


Religious Extremism

Scholar Neil J. Kressel has identified several common characteristics of religious extremism and religious extremists.

These include:

  • Idealisation of a past era combined with the belief that the world has gone awry.
  • Declared certainty of the correctness of one’s religious vision.
  • Complete unwillingness to compromise with those who disagree.
  • Powerful denunciation of people with different lifestyles, especially when they involve forms of homosexuality or sexual liberality.
  • Devaluation of events in this world and an intense focus on life after death.
  • Willingness to assume the role of God’s “hit man,” defending the deity and his representatives against all perceived insults.
  • Extreme veneration of some religious leader or leaders.
  • Dehumanizing imagery of nonbelievers and religious out-groups.
  • Strong preference for keeping women in traditional, subordinate roles.

Background Research and Resources for Educator

The information provided are here for educators to develop their own questions as well as change objectives as they see fit to tailor to their own lesson outcome.

  • The Global Terrorism Index is a report compiled and published by the Institute for Economics and Peace. It was last published in 2017 using data from 2016.
  • The Rand Corp. published a report titled “Promoting Online Voices for Countering Violent Extremism” in 2013 that found American Muslim leaders are among the most effective at combating means in combating religious extremism online.
  • The Pew Research Centre has multiple resources on religious extremism around the world, including a July 2015 poll that found a rise in concern about Islamic extremism in places with large Muslim populations, from the U.S. to Europe to Africa.
  • The Council on Foreign Relations maintains a topic page dedicated to radicalization and extremism that includes reports, testimony and other research and resources.
  • Read “Islamic Scholars Promote Sharia as an Alternative to Extremism” by Kareem Fahim writing for The New York Times, March 18, 2015.
  • Read “Egypt names new interior minister to combat religious extremism” by Mahmoud Mourad and Yara Bayoumy writing for Reuters, March 5, 2015.
  • In February 2015, the White House held a Summit on Countering Violent Extremism. Remarks made by President Obama and many participants can be found on YouTube.
  • Watch “Muslim Initiatives Against Extremism,” a report by Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly that originally aired Nov. 14, 2014.
  • • Watch “Combating Muslim Extremism in Britain,” a report by Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly that aired July 19, 2013.
  • Watch “Religious Freedom and Religious Extremism: Lessons from the Arab Spring,” held at the Berkley Centre for Religion, Peace and World Affairs at Georgetown University on March 16, 2012.
  • Watch a video of a 2012 seminar titled “The History and Future of Religious Violence and Apocalyptic Movements,” held at the Hertog Global Strategy Initiative at Columbia University.

Organisations to be Used/Explored

  • The Center for the Interdisciplinary Study of Terrorism and Peace at James Madison University works to engage academia in the study and prevention of terrorism and the promotion of peace. It conducts conferences and produces white papers on various topics about terrorism and peace that frequently include a religion angle. Frances Flannery is the director of the centre which is located in Harrisonburg, Va. Contact 540-568-6340.
  • The Clarion Project describes itself as “an independently funded, non-profit organization dedicated to exposing the dangers of Islamic extremism while providing a platform for the voices of moderation and promoting grassroots activism.” It is based in Washington, D.C. Contact Jennifer Packer,
  • The Global Counterterrorism Forum is an international organization of countries that works to reduce vulnerability to terrorism by effectively preventing, combating and prosecuting terrorist acts and countering incitement and recruitment to terrorism. It has a working group called Countering Violent Extremism. The U.S. is one of 30 founding members of the GCTF. Contact
  • The Institute for Strategic Dialogue is an independent think tank based in London that works with leaders in government, business, civil society and academia to develop cross-border responses to security challenges, including extremism. The institute requests that all media inquiries be made in writing. Contact
  • Jihadica is the independent website of several researchers and academics who monitor Sunni-based Islamic extremism worldwide. Its lead author is Will McCants, director of the Brookings Project on U.S. Relations with the Islamic World. Contact
  • My Jihad is a Chicago-based educational campaign that seeks to combat Islamic extremism and anti-Muslim extremism by reframing the meaning of the word “jihad.” It was founded by local activist Ahmed Rehab and is sponsored by the Council on Islamic Relations-Chicago. Contact via its website.
  • The Quilliam Foundation is an anti-extremism think tank based in London. Noman Benotman is its president. Contact +44 (0) 207 182 7284.
  • The SOVA Center for Information and Analysis is a Moscow-based non-profit that conducts research on nationalism, xenophobia, relations between religion and secular society, and political radicalism. Alexander Verkhovsky is director. Contact +7 (495) 517-9230,
  • Truth Wins Out, a non-profit organization based in Chicago, works against anti-gay prejudice and has a Center Against Religious Extremism. Wayne Besen is its founding executive director. Contact 917-691-5118,
  • Women Without Borders is a Vienna-based organization that started a campaign called SAVE — Sisters Against Violent Extremism — an initiative designed to empower and enable women to combat religious extremism in communities and families. Edit Schlaffer is the founder.

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Is Religious Extremism the Biggest Threat to World Peace. (2021, Mar 01). Retrieved from

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