What missionaries and religious extremists have in common

If there is one story that has grabbed worldwide attention lately it has to be the American Christian missionary who died trying to bring the Gospel to a people off the coast of India who have made it quite clear that they want nothing to do with the outside world, let alone be converted to a new faith.  John Allen Chau was killed by arrow-wielding men on the Andaman and Nicobar Islands after he ill-advisedly tried to convert them to Christianity.  It is not as if the young zealot did not know what he was in for.  The residents’ desire for isolation was very well known and Mr. Chau had to bribe local fishers to take him to the island illegally.  Previous attempts to reach these ‘pagans’ had not gone well: he had been shot at with arrows and his Bible was pierced by one such projectile.

Now I suppose Mr. Chau was a nice guy, just trying to fulfill the Christian call to ‘proclaim the Good Word’ to all the peoples.  Nothing wrong with that, is there?  Except that he also referred to the tribe he was trying to reach as ‘Satan’s last stronghold’.  He saw it as his duty to force his faith on them and accepted that whatever happened to him was ‘God’s will’.

I wonder what God has made of all this?

At the risk of getting hate mail (who am I kidding?  I am sure to get slammed over this post!), I’d like to raises two points about Mr. Chau’s campaign.  Firstly, have you ever seen such an arrogant man in your life?  Who is he to decide that the particular god he professes to worship must be shared with a bunch of people who have made it abundantly clear that they were not interested?  Why did he think that these people needed his god?  Were they not best left to their own lives and their own belief systems?  Who the hell was Mr. Chau to tell others what to do?  And why did he see a nation that just wanted to be left alone as ‘Satan’s stronghold’?

Secondly, and this will definitely piss some of you off, Mr. Chau’s attitude mirrors that of religious terrorists, especially, but not limited to, Islamist extremists (NB my book on religious terrorism should be out sometime in 2019).  Jihadis for one are convinced that they hold a monopoly on Islam and that they have a divine mandate to spread their interpretation of Islam.  They have done so brutally, forcing non-believers to convert or just killing them outright.  They brook no criticism of their narrow, intolerant views and will not rest until the ‘flag of tawhid’ (the black flag that carries the shehada – the Muslim statement of faith) flies over the whole world.

Now I am not comparing the peaceful, but still overbearing, attempts by Mr. Chau to show those islanders out of what he was convinced was darkness to the violent actions of terrorist groups like Islamic State or Al Shabaab: there is no comparison at that level. At the same time however, the underlying ethos is exactly the same.  It goes like this: I happen to believe a certain way and I reject anything that is not consistent with my beliefs; hence I will pester you until you concede and embrace my way of thinking.  Mr. Chau did so with a smile on his face: IS does so at the point of a gun. Different MOs but the same goal: getting you to abandon your faith for mine.

All this reminds me of a very simple yet profound phrase used shortly after 9/11 by the American historian Bernard Lewis: I’m right, you’re wrong, go to hell.  Whenever a deeply religious person gets it into his or her head that one religion is better than all others and must rule we get into trouble.  There certainly are enough examples from history where wars, invasions and massacres were perpetrated over religious issues.  Have we not gotten beyond that?  Apparently not.

I am all for freedom of religion and I recognise that religions can be amazing forces for good.  At the same time, the most devout need to realise that the best way to show their faith is through their everyday good acts and not by trying to force their beliefs down the throats of others.  If others choose to embrace your faith then great; if not, you have to accept their decision.  Freedom of religion must be balanced by the freedom of non-religion.

It’s too bad Mr. Chau did not see this.


By Phil Gurski

Phil Gurski is the President and CEO of Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting Ltd. Phil is a 32-year veteran of CSE and CSIS and the author of six books on terrorism.

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