Confronting Violent Religious Extremism

by Knox Thames on December 13, 2014

SomaliaViolent religious extremism will be one of the greatest challenges facing the international community in the twenty-first century. Groups like the Islamic State fighting in Iraq and Syria, Boko Haram in Nigeria, al-Shabaab in Somalia, and the Pakistani Taliban reject the international order and established norms for human rights. Coupled with the emerging importance of non-state actors, vulnerability of failed states, and technological innovations that make the world more interconnected, the landscape for formulating an effective strategy to counter violent extremism has become more complicated. The United States must update its current security-based counterterrorism approach to address the roots of modern terrorism among religiously motivated extremist groups. This strategy must recognize the importance of religion as a source of motivation and ideology, while promoting religious freedom and pluralism in order to counter the narratives of religiously motivated terrorist organizations.

First, we must recognize that religion matters. According to the Pew Forum’s 2010 survey on religious views, roughly 84 percent of the global community believes in something greater than themselves. Despite this religiosity, there are increasing limitations on the freedom to practice. Pew’s 2014 survey found that 76 percent of the global population lives in countries where governments or societal actors restrict the free practice of religion. These statistics are important for policymakers to consider, because rising restrictions on religion overlaid with increasing religiosity presents a recipe for human rights abuses, instability, and potentially violence.

The rising restrictions and violations on religious freedom break down into four general typologies:

  • State repression: Authorities arrest believers, close places of worship, or deny the ability to meet. The power of the state is brought to bear against religious activity deemed illegal or unorthodox.
  • Majoritarian impulses: In new democracies or countries with weak rule of law protections, the unchecked will of the majority can lead to human rights abuses. Without minority protections, the will of a dominant community, such as a religious one, can use the ballot box to transform their beliefs into law and thus activate the mechanics of the state to police religious views.
  • Extremism: Non-state actors and individuals presenting themselves as learned, religious leaders whip up mobs and incite violence against individuals for perceived religious transgressions. Their hateful rhetoric can change societal views to where acting violently against the religious “other” is not only permissible, but praised.
  • Terrorism: The Islamic State group is now the poster child for terrorism that violently targets religious minorities or dissenting members of the majority faith.

In this new climate, states are no longer the sole repressors of religious communities. Increasingly, non-state actors, extremist groups, and terrorist organizations perpetrate violations against religious freedom. The State Department’s 2013 Annual Report on International Religious Freedom noted that “when governments choose not to combat discrimination on the basis of religion and intolerance, it breeds an environment in which intolerant and violent groups are emboldened, even to the point of physically attacking individuals on the basis of their religious beliefs.” The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) has similarly identified violent, non-state actors as a vexing, new challenge facing U.S. human rights diplomacy.

Extremist groups and terrorist organizations are increasingly savvy in how they employ sectarian themes to advance their agenda. These groups can operate in emerging democracies, while also finding operational space in failed or failing states. Just look at Myanmar where the 969 Movement led by Buddhist monks has incited discrimination and violence against Muslims minorities. The non-state nature of these and other groups, and their ability to operate among the people, position them beyond the reach of traditional diplomatic channels. Thus, new approaches are needed to reduce their influence, counteract their ideology, and prevent further violence. Understanding how they operate, recruit, and employ messaging strategies will be key.

In this emerging context, the United States is beginning to recognize that it must move beyond the traditional state-centered approach to address threats from sectarian, non-state actors. The U.S. State Department’s (DOS) 2013 Country Reports on Terrorism acknowledges the response cannot rely upon “military or law enforcement alone” and requires a “whole-of-government counterterrorism effort.” The U.S. has already laid the foundations to expand their approach through the U.S. Strategy on Religious Leader and Faith Community Engagement. With that in place and with the establishment of the faith-based and community initiatives office at DOS, there is the possibility for greater coordination across multiple U.S. government offices, bureaus, and agencies.

In addition to being against religious extremism, it is important to be for religious freedom.  Increasing the focus by the United States and its allies on freedom of religion and belief would help societies create the open civic space needed to debate and debunk violent religious themes. This focus should also be incorporated into the U.S. military approach. If the army’s concept of “regionally aligned forces” is implemented, units that stay in a particular theater to better influence and shape opinion must include service members who understand religion and religious freedom.

It will not be easy to bring these various lines of effort into a cohesive strategy. Yet, the United States stands apart from other governments because of its work to protect freedom of belief and human rights. Unlike governments that control religion to bolster their domestic standing and to ratify often repressive policies, the United States is committed to advancing the free and peaceful practice of religion for all. A comprehensive approach that integrates human rights and religious tolerance into U.S. strategy will be more successful in building durable, community resilience to violent messages and reduce the lure of violent extremism.


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