At least this time we heard from the imams, who appeared on television to condemn the terrorism. Too often they are nationally silent, even though most people will tell you that there are always local togetherness events following any major atrocity. However, their role is bigger merely than condemning. It is bigger even than trying to promote love and understanding, and it is bigger than simply being alert to extremism.
Those who really believe they are carrying out the will of Allah by murdering innocent women and children, and who are willing to blow themselves up in the process, because they think the consequence will be to find themselves in heaven with 72 virgins, need the wits scared out of them by believing that instead they will go to hell. Indeed, as I found out when I was researching my book on penance, Sackcloth and Ashes, there is even a Muslim teaching that you can be aware of the damnation to come in the grave. Eeek!
The imams need to do more than preach love: they need to preach eternal damnation, backed up by appropriate verses from the Koran, and they need to proclaim it as energetically as the radical preachers disseminate their own twisted hatred.
Damnation is rather out of fashion these days. We don’t tend to mention hell any more. Priests instead concentrate on the joys of heaven, because the alternative is all a bit too embarrassing to mention. That of course works if you are preaching to those who are already converted to loving, charitable and peaceful ways, which describes most regular attenders of churches, synagogues and mosques, but there is a significant element within Islam which does not fall within that description.
By “significant”, I do not refer to statistics. Surveys show a reassuring rejection of extremism among the general Muslim population in this country but you do not need an army to execute terrorism – just a small handful of fanatically dedicated, deluded and dangerous killers. The state rightly concentrates on trying to identify those who promulgate the creed of killing in the name of Allah and on trying to cut off the preachers of hate, who radicalise so successfully, but the imams are in a position to do that which the state cannot do: deter in the name of Allah. That is now their duty and a very compelling duty indeed.
Sometimes people invoke religion when that is not the driving force. For decades the “Irish problem” was portrayed as one of sectarianism: Protestant versus Catholic. It is, however, a simple fact that no follower of Christ, whose very Gospel is love and forgiveness, can claim His teaching as justification for murderous deeds. As one priest put it to me eloquently during the height of the IRA terror: “This is a battle between Protestant atheists and Catholic atheists.” He was right because the true battle was for territorial control of Ulster.
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