Religious extremism has been at the forefront of recent political developments worldwide. While it is difficult to pinpoint one specific cause for this trend, there are some similarities across the board that can offer some insight.
France, a state which practices a very unique, specific form of separation of church and state known as laïcité, has faced a rise in Islamic extremism, forcing them to completely reevaluate their policy approach towards religious rights.
Poland, on the other hand, has mostly closed itself off from recent migration patterns that have brought waves of Muslim immigrants to Europe but have also faced religious extremism from the Polish Catholic Church. Though Poland outwardly practices separation of church and state, the Catholic Church remains in special favor with the government and has influence policies that can be evaluated as extreme, and endanger human rights at various levels.
These two cases reveal the ease with which church-state relations can allow for the development of illiberal democracy and serve as a comparison of two extremes. That is, one society that functions on the premise of ‘out of sight out of mind’ where religion is excluded from public life, but is struggling to encompass its growing Muslim population, and another case where one dominant religion often oversteps the idea of ‘separation of church and state’ and instead dictates much of what is socially acceptable, down to fundamental rights and culturally acceptable actions. Moreover, this article proves that both a society that excludes religion from the public sphere while allowing for immigration of minority communities, and one that is mono-religious, and otherwise closed off to ‘outsiders’, can both ultimately find themselves faced with religious extremism.
Laïcité is a constitutional declaration of secularism in France which dictates that outward expression of religious beliefs in public spaces is prohibited. More recently, this has encompassed wearing religious articles, like a cross or a face-veil, in a public school or government building, in efforts to ‘equalize’ all members of society.
Laïcité, which has been a part of French law since 1905, has recently come into conflict with Muslim members of society. The surge of Muslim immigration to Europe in 2015 has in many ways reshaped the demographic makeup of French society, leaving it a more multicultural version of its former self. Although Muslims remain a minority, making up only around 5% of the population, France has been hit particularly hard with the rate of religiously-inspired terrorist attacks directly linked to the Islamic State, better known as ISIS/ISIL/IS.
The intersection of laïcité and the French Muslim population is complex. While there are obvious implications for policies that force Muslim women to remove their hijab or burqa in public spaces, there are also other types of implications, like ostracizing Muslims in French society, particularly those belonging to the second generation.
There have been multiple terrorist attacks (some linked to terrorist organizations, others not) that have devastated French society in recent years, but one of the best known is the Charlie Hebdo attack in 2015. After the journal published a drawing of the Prophet Mohammed, a retaliatory attack by two Muslim brothers left 12 dead. This particular attack sparked a conversation about the place of free speech in French society. While Charlie Hebdo’s publishings used cartoon depictions to criticize a variety of religions, discussions of whether drawing the Prophet Mohammed, which is against Islamic teachings, is a hate crime or an expression of free speech rose.
The recent murder of Samuel Paty harkens back similar conflicts of freedom of speech and the place of religion in society. Similarly, it also involved showing a drawing of the Prophet Mohammed to a classroom during a lesson on freedom of speech. After Paty was murdered for doing this, a new law came to fruition known as the Paty Law. One aspect of this law is requiring all children in France over the age of three to enroll in public school so as to curb extremist education which often takes place in private, religious upbringings, or homeschooling.
Additionally, the aim is to bring the second and third-generation Muslims into society by integration through education. The questions of how ethical forcing state-run education in a democratic society is will ultimately be dictated by the results of this law. The law also targets religious and cultural norms like polygamy and forced marriage. One Muslim community leader noted that the law was “unjust, but necessary” to root out extremism.
Further, the origin of this law highlights that there is a clear conflict between the fundamental values of French society and the Muslim community. Moving forward, as Stefania Renaldi notes, France will ultimately need to fix the alienation of the Muslim community in France and find a meaningful, well-thought-out, and inclusive way to integrate their newer members of society. In the case of France, multiculturalism has proven to be a challenge because there is a conflict over values and how to approach laws in a way that addresses the struggles of the minority communities while not inadvertently (or blatantly) isolating them by targeting their religious practices specifically.
The Catholic Church has long been an inherent aspect of Polish culture. Particularly during the years under Soviet influence, Poles would use the Church as a gathering place for anti-communist action. The Church was a significant player, along with the Solidarity Movement, in ending the Soviet era not just in Poland, but across Central Eastern Europe. That said, the Church has always been a political actor, influencing everything from local parishes, to world movements through the papacy. In fact, Pope John Paul II is often credited by his home nation, Poland, to be the defeater of communism. His work with US President Ronald Reagan and other world leaders during his period of rule is undeniably political in nature.
So when the communist era was over, the Church no longer had an enemy to fight but needed one to stay relevant, as it had, in public life. Naturally, an alliance with the far-right political party, PiS, was the easiest way of maintaining influence because their platforms aligned so well. Strictly conservative interpretations of scripture have amounted to the seizure of women’s rights to abortion and the creation of LGBT-free Zones, both of which are clear violations of human rights both as defined by the international community, and as agreed to by the European Union, of which Poland is a member.
Reuters found over 140 cases over the past five years in which priests have displayed election posters on church property or discussed elections during masses. While an increasingly large number of Poles have begun leaving the Church, its political influence has encouraged and legitimized religious extremism.
A prime proponent of such extreme leanings is Father Tadeuz Rydzyk, who runs Radio Maryja and launched a political party called “True Europe Movement” with the goal of re-Christianizing Europe. Groups like “All-Polish Youth” and “National Radical Camp” are two examples of Catholic-nationalists who regularly participate in marches, like the one that happens every year on Independence Day, which regularly turns violent and outwardly express Islamophobic, Homophobic, and Anti-Semitic ideas. As seen in the Guardian video, these groups regularly train with military-grade equipment to prepare to defend their homeland and fight in the “war” against Poland.
The intersection of the Church and government is clearly in violation of the Polish constitution which separates the two. Unlike France, Poland has a nearly mono-religious and mono-ethnic society, with 97% of residents being ethnically Polish and 85% being Catholic. Only 0.4% of society belongs to a religion that is not a denomination of Christianity. Therefore, domestic multiculturalism cannot be interpreted as a factor in religious extremism in Poland in the way it is in France.
Instead, Poland has isolated itself, with the government instating legislation that directly violates EU policy by rejecting non-European immigrants, and even though fear of a “Muslim invasion” is frequently propagated by the far right, Muslims make up only 0.1% of the population. While there have not been mass bombings or stabbings like in France, there has been widespread violence that has endangered public safety, perpetrated by groups like the All-Polish Youth and the National Radical Camp. In this way, Catholic extremism, like Islamic extremism, directly endangers public safety.
France and Poland show two completely different breeding grounds for extremism and prove that it is not a matter of how open or how closed off a given society is that makes it susceptible to extremism. Some other factors to consider are as follows:
Exclusion (perceived or substantiated)
Social isolation can be induced by real factors, like in the French case which shows a disproportionate degree of Muslim immigrants and second-generation members living in low-income housing. However, they can also be manipulated through the use of propaganda, as is seen in the Polish case. That is, even though some Polish Catholics (the majority in the country) have supported the creation of LGBT-free zones (a minority community), their rhetoric still frames the majority as the victim. This is also visible in communities like the alt-right in the US, whose members frequently tout the idea of white-suppression or reverse racism despite lacking any substantial evidence that white people suffer from discriminatory practices in a systematic way in the US, while other minorities really do.
Both homegrown Muslim extremists in France and homegrown Catholic extremists in Poland share an isolated educational experience. Certain churches and mosques will propel inflammatory ideas to their followers, use religious education to spread their ideas, and can even utilize Internet-based platforms to spread propaganda. Such language may be off-putting for more neutral members, but ultimately attract those who feel out of place, discriminated against, or otherwise isolated. These messages usually include a call to action which has political and physically dangerous implications.
While both men and women participate in religious extremism, there is an overrepresentation of men in Muslim extremism. In Poland, interestingly, PiS, which we can examine as the main enabler of extremism is actually supported by more women than men, though as is seen in the video about Paulina by The Guardian, the extremism groups themselves are also mostly comprised of men. Either way, just like the case of Phyllis Schlafly in the fight against the Women’s Liberation Movement in the 1960s-80s in the US, just because women are involved doesn’t make the movement good for women’s rights.
Moreover, these extreme communities depend on traditional gender roles and older, conservative viewpoints which use acts of violence to “defend” their ideals, glorification of a male warrior, gendered family structures with patriarchal leaders, and strict, binary definitions of gender (Poland, France). In this way, the dependence on tradition informs and upholds the ideals of these religious extremists and ends up hurting “outsiders”, women, and individuals who do not conform to their strict definitions. In the end, these are tools used by extremists to bind members to their group, and in a very cult-like manner, created savior-complexes in the men that play leadership roles. Hence, the violence of someone carrying out mass murder in the name of Islam or a protester at the November marches in Poland fighting innocent people feels he/she is doing their movement a service through self-sacrifice and violent acts.
Celebration of Violent Acts
If the goals of the extremist groups are to eliminate all those who oppose them, any opposition to them can be interpreted as signs that the “persecuted” group (here, persecution can be real, false, or a combination of the two) is justified in their actions, but also doing the right thing. A common narrative of the Catholic faith is martyrdom and persecution, the idea that you will have to suffer for your faith in order to truly live it out. And this plays an important role in the actions of extremist groups, while also encouraging them to move farther and farther away from mainstream society to a point where they are nearly fully isolated.
In reality, if a group’s motives are that they are being excluded from society (see “Exclusion”), logically it would make sense that they would want to be seen by and legitimized by the mainstream. But the opposite is true, and the increase in isolation only further fuels sentiments that the group is isolated because they have also isolated themselves and their followers, which allows for their full, unwavering support, much like Paulina in the Guardian video. Similarly, groups like ISIL/ISIS/IS who take credit for killings reinforce the isolation that their followers experience.
- What other explanations can be offered for the rise in religious extremism?
- What is the place of religion in the 21st century when an increasing number of democracies are secular in nature?
- What other cases of religious extremism show a failure of governance? How can it effectively be combatted?