This week has seen another terrorist attack in the UK. Since the weekend, it has become clear that the latest attack was part of the ongoing series of mass murders in Europe, which have been inspired by Islamist ideas around jihad and martyrdom. Each of these events is unique. Each of the perpetrators has had a different life experience, which has given rise to a different set of motivations. For example, there is no doubt that many people are justifiably angered by the ongoing deaths caused by Western militaries in foreign countries. There is also no doubt that people who have suffered discrimination and deprivation can be especially resentful of society in general. This is a real problem, which demands a policy response. We must continue to demand human rights for all and oppose religious discrimination, including prejudice directed at minority Muslim communities.
Opposing harmful religious ideas is not inconsistent with opposing bigotry against religious people. While people have rights, their ideas don’t. No person is beneath respect and dignity but no idea is above interrogation and criticism. In fact, the criticism of harmful religious ideas is not only justifiable, it is necessary and indispensable.
Martyrdom is an explicitly religious idea, which is extremely harmful and deserving of criticism. There is no doubt that jihadist attacks are in large part motivated by religious ideas relating to martyrdom. This is true of both the recent attacks in Europe and the much more numerous attacks that are perpetrated by jihadists against their neighbours in Muslim-majority countries.
These harmful religious ideas are not exclusive to Islam either. In Matthew 10:34-39, Jesus provides explicit approval for martyrdom and the Roman Catholic Church continues to venerate martyrs. For example, Saint Joan of Arc was said to have received celestial instructions to go to war against the English. After following these supposed directions from heaven, she was captured and killed. In 1920, she was then canonised as a martyr by the Vatican.
Whether Muslim or Christian, the idea that god instructs people to go to war and then looks favourably upon those who die in the process, is entirely irrational and extremely dangerous. Those who seek veneration as a martyr can be motivated to carry out the most appalling actions, which are also often motivated by religiously-inspired views of others. For example, the Qur’an includes many verses on those who reject the Islamic faith and Roman Catholic Catechism 846 still teaches “extra Ecclesiam nulla salus”. An important response to such abhorrent acts, should be to stop the veneration of martyrdom and to criticise those ideas wherever they are expressed.
We should continue to oppose religious discrimination against people from minority faiths and we should continue to criticise dangerous religious ideas like martyrdom. Those of all religions and none, should recognise that martyrdom is an idea that is best consigned to medieval history.