Sexual abuse in conservative Christian communities: This is religious terrorism too

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If we want to be consistent with how we see and deal with terrorism, we need to look at the violence tolerated within fringe Christian sects.

I would not be surprised if most people, when asked to name which religion is most closely associated with terrorism, would immediately, and without hesitation, respond ‘Islam’. And there is no doubt that Islamist extremists are behind the vast majority of terrorist attacks around the world. You do not have to take my word for it: check out the latest Global Terrorism Index (NB I helped organise the launch of this report at the University of Ottawa last December).

Image result for global terrorism index 2019

It is nevertheless true that terrorists who claim to be representatives of Islam are not the only ones who use faith to justify their acts of violence. As I tried to demonstrate in my latest book, When Religion Kills, there are lots of people of many faiths who think it is ok to kill in the name of god. If you read that book you’ll see there are lots of Hindu, Jewish, Sikh and even Buddhist terrorists. Buddhist terrorists?? Yes, that is NOT an oxymoron!

And yes there are Christian terrorists.

Recently we have seen acts of extreme violence executed in mosques and synagogues by far right terrorists who see themselves as the ‘protectors’ of white ‘Christian’ ways. The manifestos and statements of these perpetrators often include overt references to Old and New Testament verses, apparent ‘proof’ that these actors are carrying out God’s plan. Supporters of these extremists will refer to their heroes as ‘saints’.

‘St’ Brenton Tarrant, the Christchurch mosque killer (Photo: TVNZ)

More widespread than you think

I want to go a little further in this blog and suggest that Christian terrorism is actually more widespread than many might think (and I am certain that some readers will disagree with me and may even take offence). This opinion has been informed by a few articles I have read recently about serious abuse in fringe Christian sects. To wit:

  • In a report by researchers at the Netherlands Utrecht University it was found that most victims of sexual abuse within that country’s Jehovah’s Witness community are unhappy at the way their complaints have been dealt with by the church. The researchers received 751 reports of abuse, ranging from incest to rape, of which 292 were made by the victims themselves.
  • And if you want to learn a very heartrending and disgusting account of serial sexual abuse in several Amish communities in the US, check out this Cosmopolitan article (warning: it is quite graphic). The acts forced on girls as young as nine by brothers, fathers and elders is hard to process.

I would like to submit that these are acts of religious terrorism. Bear with me. Terrorism, as I have noted ad nauseum, is a serious act of violence committed for political, ideological and religious reasons. If the #metoo movement has taught us anything, it is that sexual abuse and assault is serious and endemic and has been ignored for millennia. So yes, rape is a serious act of violence.

An Amish family sell berries in Springville, N.Y.
An Amish family (Photo: AP)

Religious sanction

Furthermore, I believe that the men responsible for sexual abuse in the Dutch Jehovah’s’ Witnesses and the American US Amish communities are acting out of what they see as religious sanction. These faiths are ultra conservative, where men are seen as dominant and women as subservient. Hence, men can do what they want with women because it is ‘God’s way’.

Recall that religious terrorism does not have to be linked to normative faith. Jihadis are not ‘normative’ Muslims. India’s ‘cow vigilantes‘ are not ‘normative’ Hindus. Nor, at least in my mind, are Amish ‘normative’ Christians. All these are examples of extreme forms of religion.

In the end this litany of abuse must be identified and condemned. Men who rape little girls out of a sense of entitlement must be stopped and punished in accordance with the law. Women in these fundamentalist fringe Christian communities must get the support they deserve.

And this form of sexual crime must be called what it is: Christian terrorism.


When Religion Kills: How Extremists Justify Violence Through Faith (2019)

Christian fundamentalists. Hindu nationalists. Islamic jihadists. Buddhist militants. Jewish extremists. Members of these and other religious groups have committed horrific acts of terrorist violence in recent decades. Phil Gurski explores violent extremism across a broad range of the world’s major religions.

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