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I hardly ever turn on a television news programme these days for fear of finding myself listening to another devout Muslim telling me that we have got Islam all wrong. The last one I saw (by accident, on Newsnight, only two days ago ) encapsulated everything that is normally said by Islamic apologists. He said something roughly like this: ”We Muslims are sick and tired of being depicted by the West as all fundamentalists and fanatics. Islam is a religion of peace and joy. You only have to read the Koran to find that out. You will all come to realise it when Islam comes to dominate the world....”

Yes, he actually used the word “dominate”. I leave to others to explain how a religion which seeks to dominate the world is also a religion of peace and joy. But I am the first to agree that all religions from time to time have made similar claims. Almost all the faiths I have come across have claimed to be the only true religion and have also claimed to be a creed of peace and joy. Why, I believe Christianity in its day has claimed to be a militant religion, though you only have to read the Bible to find out that Christianity is also a creed of peace and joy…

The truth is that some Muslims are apostles of peace and joy and some are apostles of war, terror and bloody reprisals. The same is true of Christians. You don’t have to go to the Yemen to find fundamentalist violence. A trip to Northern Ireland will bring you the same treat, at far less expense. Christian fundamentalist brethren are bombing, beating and blowing each other up there on a regular basis every day. I believe it is called the “peace process”. But because they are so close to us, we don’t think of the people in Northern Ireland as the same kind of people as Islamic fundamentalists.

In any case, what we have in Northern Ireland is not fundamentalist Christians against the unbeliever - it’s fundamentalist Christian against fundamentalist Christian, so that’s obviously different. But is it? You get the same phenomenon in Islam, where Sunni Muslims are daggers drawn against Shi’ite Muslims, much as Catholics and Protestants are at each other’s throats, or kneecaps, in Northern Ireland…

There is no more natural enemy than a misguided neighbour. There was a dreadful case in India the other day of a Christian missionary and his family being set on fire and killed in their car by a Hindi mob, but it’s unusual to hear of Hindus attacking Christians. Hindus killing and maiming friendly neighbourhood Muslims is the usual pattern. Of course, even in Pakistan itself Muslims do not treat each other with quite the peace and joy the Koran recommends, and violence in Pakistan is now a raging problem, while in Algeria devout Muslims murder each other with a gay abandon I would not wish to see turned on anyone else, whether Christians or atheists…

In my more youthful days I used to conclude from all this that religion was to blame, that the armies marching under different banners were driven by religion to persecute each other and that therefore there was something in religion that causes war.

But I have changed my mind about the evil nature of religion. I no longer believe that religions are wrong. I think that people are wrong. I think that human beings are not yet ready for religion, which is far too good for them. The same thing was always true of communism, which would have worked perfectly with perfect people, but alas was inflicted on ordinary people, people like us with all our propensity to be nasty, brutish and rather short with each other, to use power for selfish ends and to use belief as a weapon to beat each other over the head with.

Most of the time it is difficult to match people’s behaviour with the religion they think they believe in. The only Buddhist country I have known much at first hand, Burma, is governed by a bloodthirsty, thuggish crowd of extortionists much given to inflicting pain and torture on their own people in a way which might make the Buddha wince a bit. Apartheid was enthusiastically backed by the established South African church. The Islamic impact of Taliban on Afghanistan does not bring the words “peace” and “joy” to mind…

Yes, religion is all right. It’s fine. It’s just that nobody is good enough for it. That’s why they invented fundamentalism as an accessory. Fundamentalism is for people who can’t handle religion properly. Everyone can get to grips with fundamentalism after only a few basic lessons. Whether Islamic or Hindu, Catholic or Protestantism, fundamentalism gives you the intolerance, cruelty, self-righteousness and tunnel vision you need to keep going in a difficult world.

And, of course, to spout the necessary nonsense. Look “fundamentalism” up in the dictionary if you don’t believe me. It’s right there next to the word “fundament”, meaning “backside”. Fundamentalism is clearly the art of talking through your backside. And there’s no species better at it than the human race.

The Independent 29th Jan 1999