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Recently, someone asked me if religious work to convert cultures around the world could be considered a form of religious extremism. Questions like this open doors to uncomfortable rooms. We enter them at our own risk.

“If we are going to talk about this,” I offered, “we have to be willing to talk about white supremacy.”

To begin, we have to distinguish universalizing religions from ethnic religions. Ethnic religions are local, although they can migrate as followers migrate. Ethnic religions are found worldwide: in the Amazon, Africa, Australia, Pacific islands, and Asia, for example. Some well-known examples of ethnic religions include the Asian religions Shinto and Daoism. One can find Shinto and Daoist practitioners outside Asia; in fact, there is a Shinto shrine in Washington state. However, these are transplants, “shoots” from the home religion that have taken root in new places. They are not trying to bring in converts.

Universalizing religions, in contrast, want to spread globally. The world’s three predominant universalizing religions are Christianity, Islam, and Buddhism. Baha’i and Sikhism are also universalizing religions, and I’d argue that the Hindu group ISKCON (the International Society for Krishna Consciousness, or Hare Krishnas) is universalizing, even though Hinduism is ethnic.

The three main universalizing religion spread differently. Buddhism originated in India from Siddhartha Gautama; it grew there during the reign of Ashoka and then shriveled. It spread to China, and it traveled on to Japan, Tibet, and Southeast Asia. Indigenous religions in those places were often folded into Buddhist practice. Nor did Buddhism come to conquer those areas. Rather, people generally came to Buddhism through its message and practice of following a path to end suffering.

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About one thousand years after the life of Siddhartha, Muhammad was born in what is now Saudi Arabia. His adult life was to preach the message of monotheism that is Islam. His message, based on visions, conflicted with the local polytheistic views: Meccans believed that their array of gods protected their lucrative trade. Thus, Meccans were hostile to his message, and Muhammad and his followers moved to Medina to protect their own safety. Only after years of clashes with Mecca were Muslims able to return to instill their beliefs.

Although Islam’s first enemy was trade, trade became one of Islam’s greatest boosters. After Muhammad died, caliphates grew and spread. A Muslim world was created through trade and conquest. Missionary preaching accompanied diffusion. Muslim dynasties and empires, such as the Abbasids, Safavids, Mughals, and Ottomans, spread through India, Iran, Turkey, Northern Africa, the Middle East, and later into Europe, and they became centers of great scientific and mathematical learning, as well as powerful economic and trade entities. There is some history of forced conversion, such as happened in the twelfth century Almohad dynasty. Overall, though, Muslim rulers were little interested in forced conversion, which is prohibited in Islam. Rather, Muslim rulers were interested in expanding borders and gaining resources. Many in those conquered areas converted because the appeal of Islam’s messages; however, many also converted because of policies that favored Muslims over non-Muslims. Today, Islam’s demographics connect primarily to origins from Asia and the Middle East, according to Pew Research.

Like the spread of Islam, Christianity’s spread is connected to conquest. It is also connected to missionary work, which we see in the New Testament from Christianity’s earliest days. From the Roman Empire on, though, Christianity was connected to forced conversion. Jewish people in the Iberian Peninsula, among other places, were forcibly converted in the Middle Ages. During the reign of Charlemagne, Saxons were converted from their tribal beliefs under penalty of death. Once the age of European colonization started in the 1500s, beginning with the Spanish and Portuguese, indigenous peoples in Central and South America who were not slaughtered were forcibly converted. People in various African countries, including Zimbabwe, faced persecution from White European missionaries. As colonization and then slavery took root in North America, slaves from Africa were often forcibly converted from Islam and Yoruba religions. In the 1800s, many Native American children were sent to White boarding schools, where they were not allowed to practice their own beliefs and were compelled to practice Christianity.

It is a painful history, and there is not enough room here to do it justice. The takeaway is that the great diversity within Christianity, a religious umbrella that has spread itself all over the world, has perhaps too often been the result of persecution and oppression. The question is valid: is extremism just single acts in the name of religion, such as those propagated by IS and al Qaeda? Or can a religion’s belief that it is the only “true” religion and that its mission is to supplant the traditional beliefs of people all over the world also be considered extreme?

Nancy Thompson teaches comparative religion classes at Community College of Vermont and NVU-Online. She is author of Touching the Elephant: Values the World’s Religions Share, and How They Can Transform Us.


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