Sunday, October 18, 2015

Quotable: Knox Thames on religious extremism

Saturday, October 17th 2015
“The shocking gains by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), the ongoing attacks of Boko Haram in Nigeria, and the Pakistani Taliban’s grinding insurgency are among the most vexing examples of violent religious extremism and terrorism in the world today.  These and other groups, motivated by a twisted religious ideology as well as factors unique to their circumstances, often use faith to justify their heinous attacks on innocents.” 

With these words, Knox Thames opened his essay, “Opportunities to Combat Violent Religious Extremism,” published on December 14, 2014 in the Small Wars Journal.  Thames was the Director of Policy and Research at the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, and he urged a better integration of CVE with the State Department’s work on religious freedom.   Here are some other excerpts from his article:

. . . . . non-state organizations seek to gain advantages by centering themselves around a particular faith tradition, using both licit and dark networks to advance their goals.  These groups seek to exacerbate societal cleavages or prejudices to advance their religio-political agenda.  Wrapping themselves in the flag of piety allows them to justify their heinous acts as divinely inspired, while trying to ingratiate themselves within a larger faith community.  The wider world views them as terrorists, but they see themselves as faith-based organizations.  Reading the statements of Mullah Omar in Afghanistan or ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi shows that, much like the Blues Brothers, they believe they are on a “mission from God.”

Unlike that fictional cinematic duo, these groups, networked through faith and criminality, use religion and politics to advance a deadly theocratic agenda.  Such dark faith-based organizations employ sectarian violence to advance their agenda, finding space to operate in failed or failing states.  They are beyond the reach of traditional diplomatic engagements, so new approaches are needed, ones that both counteract their ideology and prevent further violence. Understanding what makes them tick and what messages are successful in recruitment are key.

. . . . . The events of 9/11 and the Arab Awakening revealed an urgent need for the United States to better understand the importance of religion, religious actors, and religious freedom in the conduct of its foreign policy.  Today both democratic forces and dark networks of transnational organizations are vying against each other and old authoritarian rulers for influence and power.  Complicated issues intertwining religion and society, law and governance, and rights and responsibilities are being debated, sometimes for the first time, in the context of revolution and confusion. 

. . . . . The State Department’s new Faith-Based and Community Initiatives office could help coordinate U.S. government efforts across multiple offices, bureaus, and agencies, as laid out in the U.S. Strategy on Religious Leader and Faith Community Engagement.  In addition, increasing the focus on freedom of religion and belief would help societies create the open civic space needed to debate and debunk violent religious themes.  For instance, rights could be integrated into the agenda of the Global Counter Terrorism Forum (GCTF), while the poor domestic record of many GCTF members likely makes that unlikely.

Still, imbedding a rights agenda into USG efforts to amplify CVE activities would strengthen local actors while also countering arguments that the U.S. government wishes to instrumentalize religion, using faith-based groups as a means to a counter-terrorism end.  What makes the United States different from other nations who manipulate faith, is the U.S. government’s commitment to protecting freedom of belief and related human rights.  It is an important distinctive, yet one not emphasized enough or brought into the highest levels of diplomacy.  Tied to rights work should be messaging about the benefits of religious pluralism -- both interfaith and intrafaith. The religious diversity of the United States, and our history of grappling with discrimination, provides another unique strength.   Integrating rights and tolerance work into CVE efforts would enhance engagement across the board.  All of these efforts together would reduce the lure of violent extremism, as well as build durable community resilience to violent messages.

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