The biggest threat to religious freedom is religious extremism. The world must recognize this — and act.
- By Knox ThamesKnox Thames is the director of policy and research at the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom and an adjunct professor at the U.S. Army War College. The views expressed here are his own. Follow him on Twitter at @KnoxThames.
There is a growing threat to religious freedom around the globe. In an earlier era, the greatest hostility to faith came from secular autocracies or totalitarian regimes. But that has changed. Today, the most active persecutors of religious minorities and dissenters are religious extremists. In this still-young century, the world has witnessed a sharp rise in the number of extremist groups who attack the religious “other” for perceived transgressions.
No longer are states the sole perpetrator of abuses, as was the case during the Cold War. In the Middle East, the Islamic State has become the chief exemplar of a terrorist organization espousing a vile, religiously inspired ideology that despises diversity of thought and belief. Its genocidal attacks on the Yazidis almost one year ago and the choice “convert or die” it offers to Christians (also documented in a recent and much-discussed article in the New York Times) are gruesome evidence of its intentions. But Muslims aren’t safe, either. Shiite Muslims or dissenting Sunnis can also find themselves facing death sentences.
The Middle East is not the only region grappling with this new trend. In South Asia, the Taliban (in both its Afghan and Pakistani versions) have struck at Christians and other non-Muslims, while also viciously attacking other Islamic sects for being the “wrong” kind of Muslim. In Burma, the 969 movement of radical Buddhist monks has incited mob attacks against Rohingya Muslims. And these extremist monks are following the same agenda as like-minded Buddhist extremists in Sri Lanka, who have targeted Christians and Muslims in that small island nation.
In Africa, too, violent religious extremism can be found in a growing number of countries. The terrorist organization Boko Haram has assaulted both churches and mosques who speak out against its ideology and attacks. In the Central African Republic, religiously affiliated militias have been responsible for mass violence in Christian and Muslim communities. Extremists in various other parts of the continent have announced the founding of Islamic State franchises.
This new reality presents a vexing challenge to the international community and its commitment to human rights and religious freedom. These groups are often outside the reach of normal diplomatic channels. They don’t care what the world thinks, as they are actively trying to upend the international order.
In response, governments need to develop fresh approaches. There is no single recipe for fighting religious bigotry. Violent religious extremism grows out of many factors and is often situation-specific. So the response must be flexible, comprehensive, and coordinated, not fragmented across different bureaus and agencies. The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (of which I am director of policy and research) proposed a series of changes to U.S. law and policy last year that would better position the United States to engage on these issues. The Commission’s recommendations include expanding the “country of particular concern” designation of worst religious-freedom violators to include failed states and nonstate actors, increasing funding for fieldwork grants, and including messaging on the importance of religious freedom and tolerance in strategic communications programs.
Concerns about religious freedom are interwoven with many of the greatest foreign-policy challenges facing the United States. President Barack Obama recognized this in his speech at the Countering Violent Extremism summit in February, noting that genuine democracy and political stability require “freedom of religion — because when people are free to practice their faith as they choose, it helps hold diverse societies together.”
Better incorporating promotion of freedom of religion into American efforts to confront ISIS and others extremists can enhance efforts to fight terrorism. Religious freedom is ultimately about freedom of thought — the right of individuals to believe what they want and to act on those beliefs in peaceful and noncoercive ways. Environments that support religious freedom are therefore better positioned to reject violent ideologies. Religious freedom is certainly not a cure-all. But it can make counter-terrorism efforts more durable by protecting civic space for diversity of thought and belief.
But this cannot be the United States’ fight alone. The challenges are transnational, with extremist groups linked across borders through ideology and criminality. To respond effectively, countries that value diversity of thought and belief must, too, work in coalition. Already there are multinational efforts against extremism and terrorism, such as the Global Counterterrorism Forum. But other efforts are under way to build coalitions of like-minded governments to advance freedom of religion. A network of legislators from around the world has leveraged the political capital of its individual members to protect religious freedom in places like Pakistan, Burma, and Indonesia. The European Union’s new human rights action plan places a greater emphasis on promoting religious freedom and protecting religious minorities, more tightly focusing the 28-nation union on this issue.
And while the United States and other governments need new proactive policies, they must also discourage bad policies by partner governments that fuel extremism. Separate studies by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life have shown that, while the world is overwhelmingly religious, government restrictions on the free practice of religion are increasing. This is a recipe for increased violations and instability. In many places, heavy-handed government responses have made martyrs out of extremists and created grievances that fuel insurgencies. The recently released State Department country reports on terrorism noted this dynamic, especially in reference to several Central Asian states. To name but one example, the report on Tajikistan underscored the “negative impact on religious freedoms” of the government’s efforts to stem violent religious extremism, such as banning women and minors from attending mosques. These abuses can trigger violent reactions. In 2010, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan killed 25 Tajik soldiers in response to the country’s oppressive religion law, which limits the free practice of Islam.
Extremist groups can also find inspiration from regressive laws in the nations where they operate. Take the example of blasphemy laws. When such laws are on the books, extremists often feel emboldened to enforce them through their own rough justice. In Pakistan, which leads the world in the number of people jailed for this so-called “crime,” the blasphemy law has fueled extremist violence against human rights defenders and has instigated mob attacks against Christians and Ahmadi Muslims. In an ironic twist, blasphemy laws empower the very extremists governments claim to be fighting against.
Religious extremists are killing religious minorities and dissenting members of their own faith, and they represent a clear and present danger to diversity of thought and belief. These violent groups will, for the foreseeable future, present a major challenge to the United States and its allies for reasons of national security, humanitarian concerns, and human rights. To be sure, secular authoritarian regimes like North Korea and Eritrea will continue their abusive ways, and the United States and the international community should redouble their efforts to press for authoritarian regimes to reform. But the rise of violent religious extremism requires a new approach — one where governments recognize the problem, pivot quickly, and work in concert to meet this challenge.
In the photo, Buddhist monks demonstrate against the U.N. and the return of Rohingya Muslims on May 27, 2015, in Rangoon, Burma.
Photo credit: Jonas Gratzer/Getty Images