Jean Bethke Elshtain: On Religious Freedom and Religious Extremism

By: Jean Bethke Elshtain

September 9, 2011

The remembrance of 9/11 tells a story of heroism and self-sacrifice, a story of extremism and mass murder, a story of horror, pity, sorrow, and rage. The mind overflows with stunned memories: initial disbelief, anger, grief, determination. Much of this is difficult to put into precise words. There is so much and words often seem inadequate to the task.
And yet…words are really all we have if we hope to communicate to others what we are thinking and feeling. What scholars hope to communicate is either knowledge or interpretation of events whose basic contours are already known. Where is 9/11 placed as what might be called a ‘scholarly problem’? The first and most obvious claim, one that can and has been investigated using the ‘tools of the trade’, is that religious extremism transformed into a murderous ideology is a catalyst for acts of violence without restraint. The inflamed religious/political fanatic seems himself or herself justified in ‘the deed’. And no justification is required as the ideology provides both explanation and justification of whatever is done in its name. So the nexus—religious extremism and political extremism—is pretty clearly established.

More difficult to investigate is the question of religious freedom and its relationship to religious extremism. One plausible tack to take would hold that religious extremism flourishes in the absence of religious freedom. The argument is that what cannot be expressed openly continues to ferment covertly and to take on ever more extreme dimensions. This is the old idea that what is ‘repressed’ rages unexpressed and, sooner or later, will burst forth as unrestrained violence or in other distorted ways. The ‘solution’ suggested is more religious freedom and openness under the conviction that in a world in which religious beliefs need not go into hiding, the more extreme beliefs are likely not to stand up to critical scrutiny. In the ‘marketplace of ideas’, they will be found inadequate, even hateful. It follows that, if you would avoid religious extremism, you should promote religious freedom. Otherwise you will face one day a horrific ‘return of the repressed’.

There is a competing interpretation. This second position holds that unrestrained religious freedom opens the floodgates to religious extremism. The scenario imagines every ‘religious nut’ coming out of the woodwork to ply his or her wares. Given the fact that bizarre ideas can spread like wildfire these days given the internet, some might take hold, appealing to conspiracy theorists and other like-minded sorts with distorted frames of mind. Even if the ‘religion’ being expressed calls for the destruction of whole categories of other people (Jews, Christians, the wrong sort of Muslims, say), it is, apparently, even worse to try to suppress such speech than to take a permissive stance. Religious freedom is such a precious good that it is far more dangerous to attempt to regulate and to suppress some expressions of it than to allow it to go forward uninhibited.

Two possible conclusions can be drawn from this scenario. One holds that there is a necessary connection between religious freedom and religious extremism: the one inevitably entails the other. Hopefully, the forms of extremism will be of the self-enclosing, looking-inward type, uninterested in changing the wider society, focused on individual ‘salvation’ only. But it is always possible that religious extremists will use religious freedom to try to create a public world in which there will be no religious freedom at all, one in which only their sort of religion will be permitted.

A second holds that there is no necessary connection between religious freedom and religious extremism at all. One does not necessarily entail the other. It is, to be sure, a gamble but democratic, human-rights respecting societies must take the risks given the precious good of religious freedom. At the same time, some forms of religious extremism, i.e., those that preach the justified murder of others of different religious beliefs, can and should be curtailed in their unrestrained expression. Such advocacy is too close to ‘the deed’ so prized by religious fanatics. How and in what ways—through what mechanisms—certain constraints are put into place and observed will, of course, vary from one democratic society to another. As with any good, any value, religious freedom is not an absolute good, not an unalloyed and unrestrained activity. A concern for the common good and the public interest may require constraint should the extremists not constrain themselves.

Discover similar content through these related topics and regions.