So on the face of it the steady rise in strength of extremism is very bad news indeed. We have a minority of Muslims believing they can murder civilians and go to heaven. We have entire states such as Saudi Arabia, Iran, Pakistan and Israel passing laws that fiercely discriminate between religious groups. And plenty of apologists trying to justify that discrimination on the grounds of cultural identity or past oppression. What kind of cultural identity beheads critics for arguing for women’s equality, being gay or trying to convert someone to a religion the state doesn’t like? What makes anyone think that a history of your own race suffering the most appalling oppression makes it OK to inflict oppression on another race? What kind of President of the United States thinks it is fine for heavily armed groups of white supremicists to march through other people’s cities provided only one protestor gets mown down and killed?
Yet despite all the evidence of the growth of bigotry I think there is every prospect that what we are witnessing is not an inevitable rise of the dangerous tendency to retreat into the psychological comfort of believing in the rights of your ‘own’ people. I think what we are watching is the very nasty and very dangerous death throws of religious absolutism.
The world has changed enormously over the past 50 years. The most powerful of those changes has been the growth of globalism. Economically the quantity of goods and services travelling across borders has increased out of all recognition. Billions of people who lived in isolated poverty within communities that knew little of nothing of life outside have become financially better off and have acquired technology that means that they know much more about what happens in the rest of the world. Mobile phones, television and the internet now take information into almost every corner of the globe.
For most people this has produced some very happy changes. If you compare the quality of life in China under Mao with life now there has been a total transformation – and the vast majority of it has been very much for the better. Similarly living standards in South East Asia, in India, in most of South America and in much of Africa are way beyond the dreams of 50 years ago. That doesn’t mean poverty and inequality has gone. It puts pressure on the resources of the planet and radically changes the urgency of the need to move to more sustainable economic and environmental models. But it also really does mean that a lot of people are happier and healthier and are part of a global society.
For most of us being part of a global society means a sensible pride in the best aspects of our own culture of origin but a readiness to respect the richness of the variety of other people’s traditions. Most of us like the idea of live and let live and don’t mind people having different religions or beliefs – provided of course that they don’t start forcing us to comply with them. An interchange of ideas is healthy and gives plenty of grounds for optimism not fear.
The world is not only becoming linked more closely together. It is also rapidly moving away from its era of dependence on the strange and primitive practice of burning ancient fossils. There are therefore plenty of other grounds for optimism about where the world might be going. If won’t be long before there is no need to waste vast quantities of resources and lives on trying to control territories that contain fossils because anyone will be able to generate the electricity they need in their own home or factory.
The prospect of a multi-cultural world economy that is sustainable and where there is a lot more equality between the different nations has a strong appeal to rational open-minded people. It scares the living daylights out of those who fear change and want to control others.
Fortunately a lot of young people share the desire for more open societies. For example, 70% of the population of Pakistan is under 21. A large proportion of those young people have respect for their past but want to live their lives somewhat differently to previous generations. They like their music. They want their opportunities to meet other young people. They want education. And if they are female they want to have more control over their own lives and make more decisions for themselves than the previous generation.
The way I see it, there are incredibly strong economic and social forces that favour increasing freedom and opportunity in almost every part of the planet. The religious bigots are right to be scared about this. They can feel history moving against them. They fear that young people will want to live their own lives and make their own choices. If you are a prophet in a religion that relies on an authoritative man interpreting the scriptures for the benefit of the faithful then it must feel like time is running out. Because it is.
The Spanish Inquisition was launched at exactly the moment when new worlds were being discovered and science was roaring forward. The same nasty determination to keep the lid on change is present in many places now. A very small number of all those young people who are being exposed to confusing new possibilities have reacted by trying to bomb them out of existence and go back to a simpler past. It is a reaction that cannot possibly be successful. We are going to suffer at their hands as they inflict a lot more pain and suffering. But for every individual who wants to go back to a safe and controlled past there are thousands upon thousands who get a taste of increased freedom of choice, like it and want more.
We could be in for a difficult ten years or so as small groups of scared people try to turn the clock back on globalisation via the force of terrorism. But they will fail. The sooner we all learn to think for ourselves and to take from our collective inheritances whatever is genuinely of value whilst letting others get on with doing the same the quicker we’ll all get there. The more we respond to horrible murders by hating others and abandoning hard won freedoms the harder and slower the eventual victory will be.