Why Violent Religious Extremism?

This week, on Interfaith Voices, I had a fascinating conversation with former NPR reporter Sarah Chayes. She had reported on the defeat of the Taliban in Afghanistan and was so taken by the country that she decided to live there for 10 years.   

Thus, she has firsthand experience in the areas of the world where religious extremism is arising these days.

But why does it arise? What is its appeal? She offers what, to me at least, was an unexplored theory. She says that such extremism arises in countries with entrenched, pervasive, insulting and “in your face” corruption.  

Simply put, corruption is the re-channeling of public resources for private gain. And of course, we have corruption here in the U.S. as well. But, she says, it is not the constant, everyday personal “shakedown” experienced by people in many developing countries when they try to get a necessary permit or file court papers or whatever. Officials routinely want money “under the table,” or other favors. And judges in some countries, she said, actually demand sex (usually from a man’s sister or other relative) in exchange for a “fair” ruling! 

But, I wondered, what is ISIS offering to counteract this? The answer? A pristine moral code and promises of honest dealings in governing. She concedes that this looks crazy to us because of the violence this group perpetrates, but she says that the promise of a moral society that forbids corrupt behavior is compelling to a lot of people. In addition, some victims of this pervasive corruption are so angry they want to kill officials, and ISIS gives them weapons to do it ... and encourages them in their violent desires. 

But most amazing to me was the historical parallel she drew. She wondered, she said, had anything like this ever happened in history before? And she began exploring the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century! She re-read Martin Luther’s 95 Theses, which deal largely with the endemic corruption of the Catholicism of his age. And selling indulgences was not the only corrupt offense ... itinerant monks often did “shakedowns” to get contributions, and there were many other forms of corruption.    

This, she said, led to the rise of Protestants and especially the Puritans, who offered a strict moral code (and burned a few people at the stake while they were at it). 

She outlines all this in her new book, Thieves of State: Why Corruption Threatens Global Security. You can hear my full and — if I do say so myself — fascinating interview with her here.

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