Religious ignorance NZ's 'Achilles heel'

17:00, May 18 2012

A professor who has spent many years studying links between terrorism and religion says ignorance toward religion is New Zealand's greatest weakness in the face of terrorist threats.

Douglas Pratt, a Waikato University religious studies professor who has advised the Australian Federal Government, the Australian Federal Police and the FBI on religious extremism, described the nation's lack of understanding about religion as our "Achilles heel".

"New Zealand's biggest danger has been in its naivety around religion and diversity. We have an attitude that it's a private matter to be discussed behind closed doors," Prof Pratt said.

"We think if everyone goes to the beach and has another barbie, everyone's happy."

Prof Pratt said a decision to keep religion and education secular in the late 19th century has led to a poor knowledge of religions, so Kiwis were more susceptible to getting caught up in extremist activities because they were "gullible".

He highlighted the distinction between education and indoctrination, and said it was "tragic" the New Zealand education system was so lacking.

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Prof Pratt said although New Zealand was broadly considered a safe country extremism-wise, it was not without religious fundamentalists.

And there was no way of predicting random acts, like those of Norway's mass-murder-accused Anders Breivik, who "came out of nowhere".

"With the internet globalisation of all the activities now, one never knows who's beavering away in their bedroom."

Prof Pratt said the broadly adopted academic view of the 1960s that religion was on its way out was wrong, and though terrorism had recurred throughout history, now more than ever it was driven by religion rather than politics.

"Globally speaking, religion is on the rise."

Adrienne Windsor, assistant administrator at Bridges church in Cambridge, said an increased interest in Christianity meant attendance numbers were "definitely" on the rise "across the board, all ages really".

But Mrs Windsor did not believe there was any real danger of extremism in the Waikato. "I don't, to be honest, although I guess there are a number of new cultures coming into the Waikato with new immigrants.

"I don't think there's any danger of extremism."

Federation of Islamic Associations of New Zealand president Anwar Ghani said Muslim numbers were also growing in Waikato.

Dr Ghani said New Zealand was "one of the best places to live" and while he supported the idea of more religious education in schools, he said Kiwis' "respect for each other [was] very good" and there was rarely any opposition to religious activities.

He did not think religious terrorism was likely either.

"You can be fairly confident that we don't have that problem or even the reasons or cause for it."

Prof Pratt's inaugural professorial lecture, The persistence and problem of religion, is on next Tuesday at 6pm at the Gallagher Academy of Performing Arts at Waikato University. All are welcome.

louise.risk@waikatotimes.co.nz

Waikato Times