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The Four Horsemen of Intolerance

24/07/2013 17:42 BST | Updated 22/09/2013 10:12 BST

Four brands of intolerance are on the rise around the world. We could call them the 'Four Horsemen of Intolerance'. They take different forms, shaped by different beliefs, with differing levels of effect, but in essence they have much in common.

The first, most well-known and yes, most dangerous, is radical Islamism. The second, militant secularism. The third, far-right thuggery. The fourth, and perhaps most surprising, extremist Buddhism.

Earlier this month, I attended the fifth anniversary of the founding of Quilliam Foundation, a Muslim counter-extremism think-tank based in London, whose motto is 'Challenging Extremism, Promoting Pluralism'. Quilliam was founded by two ex-radicals, Ed Husain, author of a book called 'The Islamist', and Maajid Nawaz, author of a similar book called 'Radical' - both of which I highly recommend. Both had been activists in Hizb-ut-Tahrir, a global Islamist group whose publications include the US-based 'Khalifornia', a play on America's sunshine state California and the Islamic concept of the 'Caliphate' (sometimes spelled 'Khalifate'). Both have renounced Islamism, and have played a leading role from within the Muslim community in countering radicalism.

At Quilliam's event, a fascinating discussion took place in the form of a panel comprising a former jihadi, Dr Usama Hasan, and two former members of the far-right English Defence League (EDL). Dr Hasan had fought in Afghanistan, but has since become a prominent voice for moderation and pluralism. Nick Jode and Dean James, former EDL activists, have since left the EDL and are working together with Quilliam to counter anti-Muslim, as well as Islamist, intolerance.

The previous month, I was in Indonesia, where I visited victims of rising religious intolerance -members of the Ahmadiyah and Shia Muslim communities, who have been subjected to violent persecution, Christian churches forced to close despite being legally licensed, and an atheist in jail because he declared his disbelief in God on Facebook. Driving the campaign of hate against non-Sunni Muslims is an organisation known as the Front Pembela Islam (FPI), or 'Islamic Defenders Front'. This militia is responsible for the closure, and in some instances destruction, of Ahmadi mosques and Christian churches, although it is interesting to note that their ideological drive is limited by extortion and bribes.

In Bandung, West Java, I met a man who had been the leader of FPI in that city. He had led attacks on Ahmadi mosques and Christian churches, until one day he got into a conversation with an Ahmadi. He discovered that ninety percent of the Ahmadi's beliefs, grounded in Islam, were the same as his, and the remaining ten percent that were different were hardly objectionable. The Ahmadiyah motto is 'Love for all, Hatred for none', a great antidote to intolerance. Realising that Ahmadis were not just human beings, but fellow Muslims, was a wake-up call for this former militia leader, and he concluded he had to change paths. He resigned from the FPI, facing numerous threats and denunciations from his former comrades, and is now close friends with the Ahmadi community.

His story shows how a person can change just through a little bit of human dialogue, interaction, understanding and education. He believes many of his former FPI comrades would also change course, if made to realise the error of their ways and if given the chance.

In Burma, I have seen the effects of a militant Buddhist movement, known as "969". Inspired by a fiery monk, U Wirathu, branded the 'bin Laden of Burmese Buddhism', the movement preaches shocking hatred of Muslims - and there are fears that other non-Buddhists, such as Christians, may begin to feel the wrath of these Buddhist neo-Nazis next. Buddhist-led anti-Muslim violence has swept Burma, resulting in death and destruction and a climate of fear that threatens to destabilise the country's fragile baby steps towards democracy.

Militant Buddhism is not confined to Burma. Contrary to rose-tinted Western perceptions of Buddhism, this intolerant strand of Buddhist nationalism exists in Sri Lanka, where it has led to serious persecution of Christians and Muslims, and southern Thailand, to name just two. There are hints of it in Laos, Vietnam and Bangladesh's Chittagong Hill Tracts too.

Secularism, in its most militant forms, has led to intolerance in the name of 'tolerance'. The ban on the wearing of head scarves in France, crucifixes on British Airways and the offer of prayer for the sick in hospitals are just a few examples of this. Changing Christmas to 'Winter-tide' is another. Opponents of same-sex marriage are worried that they may be in trouble with the law for expressing an opinion, as the arrest of a street preacher in London recently illustrates. Silencing of free speech is one of the early casualties of ultra-politically correct militant secularism.

So what does this all mean? It means that we have a growing worldwide problem of civility in the public square. Despite great strides in advancing the concept of 'diversity' in many Western democracies, in the area of religion society has reversed. Either there is intolerance of difference, or intolerance of debate. In some societies, simply to belong to a minority religion or belief is to become an outcaste, or even to risk one's life. In other societies, to dare to subject a religion or belief - usually one particular religion - to satire, questioning or critique is to 'spread hatred' and is politically exceptionally incorrect. Either way, neither attitude is conducive to those most precious of human rights - freedom of thought, conscience, religion or belief and freedom of expression, as set out in Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

At the end of the day, intolerance is largely borne out of ignorance. All forms of hatred and intolerance come from the same root. It is true, however, though not politically correct to say so, that one form of intolerance is more dangerous than all the others, and that is because it is the most far-reaching - and that is radical Islamism.

This does not excuse for one moment the shocking violence and hatred spread by militant Buddhists in Burma or Sri Lanka, the unthinking thuggery of the EDL or militant secularism's cynical, narcissistic and insipid hostility to anything sacred or its failure to respect matters of conscience. But as Maajid Nawaz said, as a Muslim, on Quilliam's fifth anniversary, no other form of intolerance poses as great a danger to world security as radical Islamism.

Extremist Buddhist nationalism, or for that matter extremist Hinduism in India, is not expansionist - it inflicts grave injustice on non-adherents in its own society, but it has no great plan for world domination. Intolerant fundamentalist forms of Christianity are largely confined to remote areas of the United States, or the odd ultra-evangelical church elsewhere, and are only very rarely violent. The EDL is a reaction to political correctness and perceived grievances, and will wither on the vine if the bigger challenges are properly addressed by our political classes. Even militant secularism is based largely on a twisting, albeit warped, of the good values of liberalism and tolerance, and might be persuaded to at least live and let live.

The radical Islamist agenda, on the other hand, is of an entirely different nature. It is not thuggish, it is a highly thought-through and profoundly held set of beliefs. Its proponents are not always ignorant, and some - such as Sayyid Qutb, the intellectual godfather of Islamism - have been exposed to liberal Western society and found it wanting. Their ideology is not an ignorance of the 'other', but a calculated agenda to subvert and suppress it. Islamism may involve terrorism and violence, at times, and it certainly involves oppression of women, religious minorities, homosexuals and dissenters, but it is more than the other forms of intolerance - more than nationalism, more than thuggery, more than hatred. It's a manifesto with a global agenda, akin to communism, which makes it so appealing to the disenfranchised and so dangerous to the world.

The problem is, these forms of intolerance feed off each other. Intolerance begits intolerance. The more the tentacles of radical Islamism spread, the more the largely irrational fear of Islam in general will grow, the more anti-Muslim hatred - in the form of Burma's '969' or Britain's 'EDL' - will rise, and, ergo, the more jihadis will have grievances to nurture.

Observing them in action, it is clear that there is little difference in character between Burma's '969', Indonesia's 'FPI' and Britain's 'EDL'. They simply come from different stables of intolerance. The task for all of us who believe in true diversity, pluralism, freedom of conscience, whether we are Muslim, Buddhist, Christian, Hindu, secular humanist, agnostic, atheist or anything else, is to work together, to promote the values of mutual respect, harmony and peace.

We can counter the thugs through good policing and education, and we can counter the wider global agenda through a counter-narrative. We must return to a vision of diversity, in which disagreement does not mean hatred, dissent does not mean heresy, difference does not mean enmity. A civil public square, in which I can disagree with your views on God, life or morals, and say so, without declaring war on you and while respecting your right to disagree with me. That is the vision we should strive for. And as Usama Hasan, Maajid Nawaz, Ed Husain, Nick Jode, Dean James and my friend in Bandung show, it isn't impossible to change. But like the 'four horsemen of the apocalypse', the four horsemen of intolerance - and their sidekicks, such as strands of fundamentalist Christianity and Hindu nationalism - serve as a warning for us all: the death of freedom, if we do not change.