Today, in the frightening milieu of religious extremism, intolerance, and terrorist attacks, one gets a little uncomfortable even mentioning of the word "religion". Very often, in TV shows and debates I see younger the generation boiling with a rebellion of sorts against religion. Suddenly, people with tilaks, skull caps, robes and gowns have started to symbolise the sources of all the conflict in the world.
While it's true that a bunch of terrorists and extremists pose a grave threat to world peace and human civilisation, I think it is misguided to malign and vilify all those who publicly profess their religious identity and display its symbols. Therefore, it becomes crucial to explore the journey of religiosity to find out the nuances of the phenomenon in which a person travels from atheism or most basic theism to religious extremism.
The earliest stage could be atheism, which means an absence of faith in any omniscient, omnipotent being or supersensible entities like soul and consciousness. It also implies a counter-narrative which propounds the ultimate reality of the material world.
The next stage is agnosticism which is more of an academic concept, expressing one's inability to have any affirmative or negative judgment about entities like God, soul, and cosmos, in a very Kantian sense of the "impossibility of metaphysics".
Theism implies having a very rudimentary sense of belief in supersensible entities. However, in the case of Hinduism, Buddhism, and other oriental traditions, it might not be a correct approach to see things through the prism of theism and atheism, as there is complete oneness between God or ultimate truth and mankind, and all the plurality is illusory and relative. Hinduism incorporates atheism when Charvaka, a die-hard materialist is revered as a great sage in the Mahabharata. But, certainly Hinduism in the majority of its multiple belief systems would fall in theist category because there is a belief in the existence of transcendental entities.
The next stage is of being "religious", where one follows a particular belief system in a very basic manner with a sense of devotion which implies practicing some primary rituals and following the belief system as a part of life. However, at this stage there is no rigidity in one's outlook emanating from one's belief system. For instance, any Hindu or Muslim who adheres to scriptural injunctions and rituals without rigidity and exclusivist tendencies, and with faith in the general underlying principles of the religion and, shows respect or tolerance towards other belief systems, could be called religious.
In the next stage of religious fundamentalism, one witnesses a rigorous form of discipline obeying the fundamentals of religion which could be in the form of routine prayers, rituals, customs and other scriptural injunctions. At this stage, one witnesses a strong element of rigidity and a certain degree of intolerance towards other faiths or even a sense of superiority in one's own belief system over others. Until this stage, one can survive in a multicultural society with some level of discomfort.
The real problem begins with the stage of religious extremism. Politically, this stage demands the domination of state institutions by the people following a particular religious ideology at the expense of other minorities. It could be a theocratic state like Saudi Arabia, Iran or the Sunni-dominated Iraq of Saddam Hussein, or the Islamic republic of Pakistan. At this stage, one has to have a feeling of animosity and hatred towards other faith systems and their followers. Extremists generally have a revisionist agenda (the concept of Gajwa-e-Hind i.e. re-conquest of India by Islam, nurtured by radical Islamic outfits and individuals), a very high degree of intolerance, hatred, and contempt towards other religious systems. Often, such systems discriminate against a religious minority, persecute them and even nurture political dreams of the ethnic cleansing of minorities. Socially such systems thrive on the strict literal translation of sacred texts in the matters of social regulation and jurisprudence (punishments). Usually, such readings of scriptural injunctions are rigid, anachronistic, out of context, and to serve the socio-political objectives of extremist organisations/governments and individuals. However, in this stage, large-scale violence to secure one's religious and socio-political objectives is not generally prevalent.
The next stage of radicalism is more of a preparatory stage leading someone towards the final stage of terrorist violence. Radicalisation may involve specialised indoctrination or brainwashing programs for specific individuals, who are in the state of religious extremism. Such individuals, by virtue of the degree of their passionate extremism, are considered more suitable to be indoctrinated for committing acts of terrorist violence.
The last stage is of violent extremism or terrorism. At this stage, terrorist organisations and individuals indulge in extreme and most brutal forms of violence to secure their socio-political ends based on their narrow reading of scriptures. The intensity, brutality and frequency of violence - always aimed to strike terror in the minds of common folk -- could vary depending on the strength of cadres and military capabilities.
After the stage of religious fundamentalism, there is a possibility of mild diversion into the spiritual domain. One may realise the futility of rigidity and contempt towards other faiths, for one's own spiritual growth. Such an individual may lose the obsession with religious symbols and rituals, especially if these are in conflict with rationality and the requirements of changing times, while retaining the core philosophical message of the religion.
Counter-terrorism measures must reflect a nuanced understanding of the process in which an individual turns from a "religious person" to a "terrorist". Most followers fall in the second and third categories i.e. "religious" and "religious fundamentalist" so the right kind of policy intervention at these stages will be very helpful in checking the growth of radicalisation. And, it might be very helpful to engage liberal and spiritual religious scholars in such policy interventions as followers will be able to repose their trust in them.