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Is Insulting Religion "Extremism"?

No amount of provocation can excuse violence.

According to some commentators, the recent riot in Libya in which an embassy was burned and four Americans killed may be viewed as an extreme response to "extremism". Huffington Post blogger Ahmed Shihab-Eldin argues that:

Were it not for YouTube, perhaps Christopher Stevens, the U.S. ambassador to Libya, would still be alive.

He was of course referring to the video by Sam Bacile in which the prophet Muhammad is insulted. He then goes on to say that, "extremism begets extremism." 

 This sentiment was echoed by social psychologist Ravi Iyer, who goes on to state that, "Killing begets killing. Violence begets violence." He then goes on to compare Bacile to other "extremists":

Indeed, there is clear evidence that Sam Bacile, Terry JonesOsama Bin LadenCharles Manson, and other extremists understand this implicitly and commit their extremist acts with the idea of inciting a wider war.

The implicit assumption here is that making and posting a film intended to insult a religious group is an act of "extremism" and that this is somehow in the same class of actions as violently mobbing an embassy or carrying out acts of terror. Note that Terry Jones is classed as one of these "extremists". His terrifying act of extremism was threatening to burn a book deemed sacred by certain people. Offensive as this might be to Muslims, I hardly think this is in any way comparable to the actions of people like Charles Manson or Osama bin Laden who were responsible for the actual killing of human beings. 

Muslim protesters have called for the beheading of those who insult Islam
A Muslim protester in London demonstrating against Danish cartoons depicting Muhammad.

 Posting an offensive video is not an act of "violence" in any sensible use of the word, and certainly not a form of killing as no-one actually died in the making of the film as far as I know. I have only watched part of the video, but to the best of my knowledge it does not advocate that anyone be killed. What justification could there be for regarding an offensive film as “extremism”?

 Some people think that insulting someone else’s religion is immoral. According to Graham and Haidt (2010) traditional forms of morality regard respect for the “sacred” as a moral value in its own right, independent of other moral concerns, such as whether or not an action is harmful to others. Jonathon Haidt has written a book apparently arguing that respect for the sacred is not just a source of moral sentiments but actually remains an indispensable foundation for morality even in the post-enlightenment secular Western world. But is this really true? Beliefs about the sacred are inherently divisive as not everyone can agree on what is sacred. Hence sacred concerns cannot form a universal basis of morality. Demanding that people show respect for other people’s “sacred” beliefs presents difficulties, as this leads into the demand that some things cannot be criticised because it may offend somebody. This presents an obvious conflict with the right of freedom of speech. Freedom of speech reflects the freedom to think. Declaring some things off-limits to criticism is like demanding that people not think certain thoughts. Ronald Lindsay has pointed out that concern for the sacred has been used repeatedly to justify inequality and oppression. Furthermore, history has been filled with atrocities performed in the name of the sacred.  

 Ravi Iyer does cite more pragmatic concerns, arguing that incivility is provocative and regularly leads to violence. Research does confirm that provocation is perhaps the single most important cause of aggression (Anderson & Bushman, 2002). But does this mean that the video is to blame for the actions of people who chose to go into the streets with assault rifles with the intention of burning a building while people were inside? Where is the responsibility here? If a man comes up to me and says, "You're mother is a whore!" am I not responsible for how I choose to react? Even if the man is deliberately trying to incite me to fight, I would still be held legally responsible in a court of law if I chose to react with violence. As a human being I have a choice about how I react to provocation. In such a situation I have many choices, such as telling the man he is a stupid idiot and walking away. 

 Violence does not simply follow on from provocation in the way that night follows day. There is a choice involved. Iyer cites a number of research studies to support his claim that group reactions to “conflict, extremism, violence, and incivility/demonization” are fairly predictable. Notably, Iyer lumps in ‘incivility’ with ‘demonization’ as if they are the same thing, and these are grouped with violence and extremism as if these are of comparable levels of severity.[1] 

 Furthermore, although provocation plays an important role in eliciting aggression, research also shows that when people choose to react with violence to provocation, it is because they have a value system in which violence is an acceptable, or even expected, response (Anderson & Bushman, 2002). If someone is raised in a "culture of honour" they may believe that failure to respond to a provocation with aggression will be seen as a sign of being weak (Cohen et al., 1996). Youth gang violence, for example, has been linked to codes of honour or respect (Anderson & Bushman, 2002). Most people have strong inhibitions against violence, and only become aggressive when these inhibitions are over-ridden. Moral justifications can over-ride these inhibitions. Common justifications for extreme violence involve arguments that it is for a greater good or that honour demands it (Anderson & Bushman, 2002). Additionally, victims may be dehumanised, so that that they are thought to be undeserving of moral concern (Anderson & Bushman, 2002). If someone believes that an insult to their religion or holy book is equivalent to a shocking crime that must be avenged, violence is the predictable result. 

Supposedly "peaceful" "non-violent" protesters in Sydney advocate murder.

 Imagine, John Lennon asked, a world with ‘nothing to kill or die for.’ Consider what the world would be like if people universally believed that violence was never an acceptable response to a mere insult. Would not the world be a more peaceful place? Is this too much to ask for? Ahmed Shihab-Eldin argued that it is intolerance, not Islam, that is the real cancer. But does tolerance mean that critics of religion must shut up so that some people will not be offended? What happened to tolerance of differing opinions? Any religion, or interpretation of religion if you prefer, that preaches that violence is an acceptable response to non-violent provocation is preaching intolerance. People have the right to be upset when they feel insulted. No-one has the right to go out and kill people and spread terror just because they are upset. 

 Iyer may actually have a good point that incivility causes divisiveness and is therefore unwise, but it is hardly morally equivalent to extremism. Blaming rudeness for resulting acts of violence absolves those who choose to engage in violent acts of moral responsibility. The world will be better off when people realise that not being offended is a preference and not a human right. Having opinions about what is “sacred” can never excuse violence.  


[1] One of the studies cited discusses the role of humiliation in the Rwandan genocide. The examples of humiliation (e.g. repeated imprisonment) cited in that article are clearly more serious than the screening of an offensive film. Two of the other references deal with mortality salience (reminders of one’s own eventual death) and the relevance of this research to the present issue is unclear. Iyer also cites studies on retaliation to actual violence against one’s in-group (Lickel, Miller, Stenstrom, Denson, & Schmader, 2006) and on social rejection (Gaertner, Iuzzini, & O’Mara, 2008). The relevance of these is also unclear as the Libya riots were not a response to actual violence or to being rejected from group membership.

Further reading:

A number of well-written articles discussing free speech in relation to religion can be found here, here, here, and here. A thoughtful critique of the current push for blasphemy laws can be read here. Sam Harris defends the right to criticise religion.

Other posts about the psychology of religion and/or spirituality

Troubled Souls: Spirituality as a Mental Health Hazard

The Spirituality of Psychedelic Drug Users

Reason Versus Faith? The Interplay of Intuition and Rationality In Supernatural Belief

Opening the Mind: Where Skepticism and Superstition Meet

Dogmatism and Openness to Experience in the Non-Religious

Belief in God Supports Prejudice Against Gays and Atheists

What Oprah doesn’t Understand about Awe and Atheists

Belief in Hell: Does it Benefit of Harm Society?


Anderson, Craig A., & Bushman, Brad J. (2002). Human aggression Annual Review of Psychology, 53 (1), 27-51 DOI: 10.1146/annurev.psych.53.100901.135231

Cohen D, Nisbett RE, Bowdle BF, & Schwarz N. (1996). Insult, aggression, and the southern culture of honor: an "experimental ethnography" Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 70 (5), 945-959 DOI: 10.1037/0022-3514.70.5.945

Gaertner, L., Iuzzini, J., & O’Mara, E. M. (2008). When rejection by one fosters aggression against many: Multiple-victim aggression as a consequence of social rejection and perceived groupness. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 44(4), 958-970. doi: 10.1016/j.jesp.2008.02.004

Graham J, & Haidt J (2010). Beyond beliefs: religions bind individuals into moral communities. Personality and social psychology review : an official journal of the Society for Personality and Social Psychology, Inc, 14 (1), 140-50 PMID: 20089848

Lickel, B., Miller, N., Stenstrom, D. M., Denson, T. F., & Schmader, T. (2006). Vicarious Retribution: The Role of Collective Blame in Intergroup Aggression. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 10(4), 372-390. doi: 10.1207/s15327957pspr1004_6



This post has previously been published on my blog Eye on Psych