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Reform Magazine | October 18, 2017

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Editorial: Give radicalism a chance

steve_tomkinsWords can mean different things in different contexts, can’t they? I once asked a Reform interviewee, who was telling me about the great work he had pioneered, what records he’d kept. His eyes lit up and he started talking about Bob Marley. It’s a shame it was a misunderstanding – it was the most animated moment of the whole interview.

One word that leaps out repeatedly as I leaf through back issues of Reform, passing the long winter evenings in Reform Towers, is “radical”. Our writers are very keen on it. Evangelism should be “radically subversive”, says one. Several talk about “the radical teaching of Jesus”. They mention radical theology, radical Anglicanism, a radical passion play. They say Christianity began as a “radical and subversive movement” and needs to recapture that radicalism.

In each of these cases, the word is used with thorough approval: our faith is profoundly critical of our society as it now is, and wants to change how we live, how we think, the way our world is run. I imagine most Reform readers being pretty comfortable with that outlook.

But let’s try an experiment: transfer all those “radical”s from Christianity to Islam. Radically subversive Islamic propganda. The radical teaching of Islamic texts. Radical Islamic theology, radical Shia Muslims, radical broadcasts. Doesn’t it become a lot less comfortable? It summons up the violent spectre of radicalisation that haunts our news, and suddenly, instead of the Kingdom of God, we’re thinking of terror attacks.

This is an illustration, I think, of the privilege that Christianity enjoys in the west. We are free to talk about radicalism without causing fear and animosity. We can dream of radical religiously-inspired upheaval without attracting the attention of secret services.

Some might say there is a big difference between Christian and Islamic radicalism: one is murderous, the other peaceful. But if peace-loving Christian Reform writers can have radical views on our society, I wonder how many peace-loving Muslims have such radical views too.

Muslims, atheists, Jews and Christians should, surely, have an equal right to make radical objections to the state of our world and strive (peacefully) for radical change. That is how our society has been reformed over the ages. It seems a shame if the way we talk about “radical” Islam makes radicalism and violence the same thing – denying Muslims the right to be peaceful radicals and depriving us all of a radical voice for change.

For this month’s “A good question”, we asked contributors: “Why are young people being radicalised?” Their answers are insightful and helpful. But I think we ought to stop talking about “radical” Islam when we mean “violent”, and stop saying “radicalised” when we mean recruited to terrorism. As John Lennon never quite said: all I am saying is give radicalism a chance.

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This article was published in the February 2016 edition of  Reform.

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