Dealing with Violent Extremism: Mainstreaming Understanding of Religion

Foundation Update

Dealing with Violent Extremism: Mainstreaming Understanding of Religion

07 May 2015

A pervasive lack of knowledge and understanding about the role of religion in the modern world is increasingly putting Western policy makers at a disadvantage in a world dominated by religious narratives. A clear choice lies ahead. Mainstream this understanding in order to convene the consensus and strategy needed to prevent and counter violent religious extremism, or repeatedly face groups such as ISIS and its possible successors and the huge financial burden of militarily defeating them, write Matthew Lawrence and William Neal for our Global Perspectives Series.

By Matthew Lawrence and William Neal

In August 2013 John Kerry, US Secretary of State, made what many may still see as an extraordinary statement, given his broad and complex agenda. "If I went back to college today," he said, "I think I would probably major in comparative religion because that's how integrated [religion] is in everything that we are working on and deciding and thinking about in life today." J.F. Kerry, 'Remarks at the Launch of the Office of Faith-Based Community Initiatives', 7 August 2013, [ http://www.state.gov/secretary/remarks/2013/08/212781.htm]. This admission is testimony to a growing realisation among Western policy makers of the importance of understanding religion to properly address policy. It also attests to the long term, and in many cases wilful, disregard of the religious dimensions of international affairs by many in the West.

Religion is shaping the narrative of current geopolitics and will continue to do so. As such, this disregard amounts to a gap in knowledge and understanding that puts many Western policy makers at a disadvantage. If they are to collaborate with their global peers to formulate long-term strategies that lead to a successful global future, then there is a pressing need for the development of a deeper understanding of and engagement with religious ideologies, motivations, perspectives and actors.

In the latter part of modern history the Western world largely removed religion, faith and beliefs from the public square. Whether or not this is a good or bad thing for those societies, it has had the consequence of leading to a significant lack of understanding about religion. This would perhaps be sustainable if this new 'secular' or 'rational' age meant there was no place for religion to publicly play a role in societies around the world. However, Western secularisation has not been a global phenomenon.

As Ed Husain discusses, merely transferring Western secularism into many of these situations is a 'non-starter'; models such as French laïcité, British laissez-faire or American separation, even where considered, have often been rejected. The social and political lives of many of the world's fastest growing countries and geopolitically important regions continue to be dominated by religious narratives and agendas. As a result, Western diplomats and politicians have at times struggled to deal with major current world events and their foreign and domestic policy challenges. The rise of religiously motivated extremist violence requires this to change.

Writing on the battle against international terrorism, Madeleine Albright states that, "[t]he military has a role in this struggle, but the decisive battlefield will be one of ideas." M. Albright, The Mighty and the Almighty, New York, Pan Macmillan, 2007, Preface. The solution for Western policy makers is not, necessarily, to weave the values of faith back into the texture of their own societies. Rather, to properly confront religiously motivated terrorism and extremism we need to ensure that political and civil society leaders are increasingly conversant in the ideas at play and able to collaborate with faith communities in advancing narratives and policies to counter them.

There is a growing international recognition that we need a comprehensive strategy to counter religious extremism, beyond immediate security measures. Initiatives such as the establishment this year of the new Global Community Engagement and Resilient Fund are positive steps towards this. But, if this broad consensus over strategy is going to be turned into concrete action, it is imperative that foreign and domestic policy makers have the knowledge, analysis and skills to negotiate and engage the complex religious landscape of the 21st century.

Those who wish to divide communities along sectarian lines have a head start in this battle of ideas. They are experts in using religious justifications for their actions, to promote their concerns and to enlist and galvanise their recruits. Their strategies often differ greatly from economic driven Western development agendas, but they are consistent over years and decades, transcending democratic election cycles. We will only defeat the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham, or its successor, or its successor's successor, if we understand and respond to its use of religious justification and symbolism and collaborate with religious and civil society sectors that are best positioned to engage communities at risk of violent radicalisation. It will be necessary to show the same long-term resilience: planning strategically and with cross-political consensus; countering not just militarily but ideologically; and providing the informed, long-term practical support necessary to help prevent religious prejudice and extremism.

Furthermore, this battle of ideas needs to take place in all societies. Divisive narratives of religiously motivated prejudice and hatred do not respect Westphalian concepts of nation states, a process accelerated by technology and social media. Secularism has perhaps too easily become the denial of religion and its role in society. Western societies may have largely removed religious discourse from the public sphere, but they cannot afford to disregard their increasingly globalised and diverse, often religiously diverse, communities. Societies must allow religion to flourish alongside the civic state if we are to avoid isolating communities and aggravating the cycle of grievance that, ultimately, can lead to violence. Religious leaders need to be engaged as part of the solution and the benefits that religious communities bring should be affirmed and encouraged.

To equip our decision makers to act, we need to engage academia more fully with the world of policy. We need to encourage insightful and thought-leading research, making policy resources and data available for the pragmatic study of, and research into, complex situations. This should not only improve governments' understanding of the ways in which religion is influencing the modern world now and how it will in the future, but also analyse and map possible policy pathways. In particular, understanding how the impact of policy decisions involving social action, education and community engagement can make a difference in countering religious extremism is still at a very inchoate stage and its development needs to be encouraged.

The Tony Blair Faith Foundation has attempted to map and develop these policy pathways across our programmes, in delivering training and resources, supporting academic enquiry and research and engaging with religious actors on social action and conflict prevention. At the heart of them all, lies the fundamental need for those making, informing and enacting crucial decisions, now and in the future, to have the skills and knowledge to understand where religion is at play, to what end, and to have the capability to engage with religious leaders and groups. This will empower policy makers, journalists, business leaders and other key groups to better assess and deal with domestic and global challenges to bring about successful and lasting solutions. These skills will be crucial to confronting the threats and diminishing the power of extremist narratives wherever they arise; to helping countries from the Balkans to South East Asia continue to evolve and build successful post-conflict societies; and to working with some of the world's fastest growing and largest countries, including Nigeria, Indonesia and India.

Clearly a more sophisticated understanding of the complex role religion plays in contemporary global affairs will not in itself solve all the problems the world faces in the short term. But in the long term an approach that embeds a more informed scrutiny of the religious dimension will contribute to improved public policy making. Given the huge amounts of capital put into military engagement with the problem of religious extremism, informed engagement with the battle of ideas, the critical arena for religious conflict, is an area surely worthy of more investment of time and resources.

This article is taken from the Global Perspectives Series (Volume I): Religion and Conflict: Responding to the Challenges. Find all the articles from the volume here.

The views expressed by this author remains solely their own and may not necessarily be the view of the Tony Blair Faith Foundation.
Copyright © December 2014 by the Tony Blair Faith Foundation. Edited by Daniel Cere and Thomas Thorp.
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