Around 20 years ago, when I just started university, a fundamentalist Muslim group called Hizb ut-Tahrir hit upon a genius idea to attract attention. Overnight they plastered posters on campuses everywhere, declaring ‘The Khilafah is Coming’. Their annual events started attracting thousands of young, idealistic Muslims who wanted to help build the perfect Islamic state. It didn’t matter how vague or unattainable the dream was, it worked brilliantly as a tactic to get more followers and popularise an idea. Hu-T has largely fizzled out now but their dreams still live on. Just ask Islamic State.
Have you heard that if you put a frog in hot water it will jump out immediately, but put it in cold water and turn up the heat and you can cook it alive? It is a myth, but this tale describes us humans perfectly. We are too busy living our lives until one day some big event makes us stop and take notice. Only then we wonder: ‘Who are these people? Where did they come from?’
This is the problem with religious fundamentalism. We rarely see it build up around us until it is too late. We rarely ask where it comes from, much less how it becomes so powerful. But the biggest mistake we make is not realising the biggest threat from religious fundamentalists is always to their own communities. We don’t realise that until it’s too late. We are good at seeing intolerance in other communities and with other religions but not among those closer to home.
In my last column a fortnight ago, I wrote about the trend of increasing intolerance among Sikhs in Britain. But there is a bigger picture here — Sikh groups are going down a path already trodden by British Muslims and Hindu groups in India. In 20 years of watching and writing about this issue I’ve learnt one thing. They may hate each other but all extremists learn from each other and follow the same script. Today I want to talk about that script.
The first step of all religious fundamentalism starts with the promise of a perfect state. It is always a vague utopia, free from oppression, poverty and disunity. Without utopia there is nothing to dream about and nothing to work towards. For Muslim groups the Khilafah was that dream. For Sikh groups it is Khalistan, for fundamentalist Hindus it is India as a Hindu-only state.
Utopias don’t exist of course. A religious state is no more than a glorified dictatorship. But that’s beside the point -- idealists like big dreams, not a slow increase in living standards.
But even a dream isn’t enough. The second step is to get more followers. A big dream needs a core group of fervent believers and a larger group of supporters who feel guilty they aren’t following their religion properly. To recruit, fundamentalists create controversies and campaigns that bring attention. For Hindu groups in India there was the Babri Masjid and rath yatras. More recently there is the focus on religious conversions and beef-eating. For Sikh groups in Britain the drive against inter-faith marriages fits the bill perfectly.
For British Muslims the opportunity came in 1988 with Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses. It didn’t matter what his book actually said, it was enough that some claimed Muslims had been insulted. An angry mob doesn’t wait for fact-checkers. In Britain, the Rushdie controversy brought fame, money and power to Muslim groups. It also created a blueprint for others to follow, as the Sikhs did recently with the movie Nanak Shah Fakir.
The third step is to build up your enemy into a powerful force and paint yourselves as helpless victims. Every movement needs a scapegoat. For British Sikhs it is the RSS and the Indian government; for Hindu groups there is Pakistan, Muslims, Christians and secularists. For Muslim fundamentalists the blame usually lies with western governments and Israel. They are even blamed for creating ISIS.
I’m being slightly tongue-in-cheek here but this issue isn’t a joke.
Religious fundamentalism is dangerous because it isn’t about connecting with God; it is obsessed with taking power. Someone who believes they have God on their side doesn’t worry about the potential of doing evil. They want to reshape society in their own image even if that means using force. It is this desire for power over people’s lives that makes it so dangerous. It leaves no room to disagree with them, no room to hold them accountable, no room to vote them out.
It wasn’t always like this. Hindu, Sikh and Islamic history is replete with examples of debates, diversity and consensus building. Our modern-day religious fundamentalists get powerful by scrubbing out that history and exploiting us for themselves. If we don’t hold them in check and speak out, slowly but surely they will boil us to death.
Sunny Hundal is a writer and lecturer on digital journalism based in London. The views expressed are personal.