As the militant group calling itself “Islamic State” stormed across northern Iraq and Syria in recent months, prominent imam Sheikh Abdullah bin Bayyah and more than 100 other Muslim leaders flew into action, drafting a condemnation of the insurgent group’s actions with an appeal to Islamic jurisprudence. In Burma (Myanmar), as Muslims have faced persecution from Buddhist extremists, some Buddhist monks offer shelter in their monasteries. In Nigeria, the kidnapping of hundreds of schoolgirls by Boko Haram this year prompted Muslim and Christian leaders like Pastor Esther Ibanga to organize peaceful demonstrations to oppose extremist violence.

Sheikh Abdullah bin Bayyah makes a point during a discussion with (at right) Sheikh Hamza Yusuf and Dr. Vinya Ariyaratne, and (left) USIP’s Susan Hayward.

Constructive actions such as these underpin a set of recommendations developed by more than a dozen religious leaders, scholars and other activists and presented recently to U.S. and United Nations policymakers. Among the suggestions was to increase assistance to constructive faith-based organizations, taking care to support their work without endangering their lives and legitimacy, so they can be in an even stronger position to prevent and counter radicalization.

“It’s not really religion that has been driving youth and certain groups into extremism, but larger political interests.”

The religious leaders and other activists from faith-based traditions gathered over five days at the end of September in Washington D.C. and New York for meetings sponsored by the Foreign Ministry of Finland and co-organized by Finn Church Aid and USIP, under the umbrella of the Network of Traditional and Religious Peacemakers. The participants are closely involved with efforts to combat violent extremism on the ground in their own communities and countries, which include Libya, Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Yemen, Pakistan, Nigeria, Kenya, Mauritania, Somalia and Syria.

The U.N. recently estimated that at least 8,493 civilians have been killed and almost 16,000 injured in the first eight months of this year in the fighting resulting from the Islamic State’s rampage across Syria and Iraq. The toll underscores the devastating impact of violent extremism, a scourge that has threatened communities across the globe. Countering such threats requires collaboration across the range of players, from government to civil society.

Religious actors are important in countering violent extremism because of their unique positions of authority, credibility, institutional resources and ties with communities. Not all violent extremism is encased in religious terms, and not all extremism is violent. But the rhetoric and media discussion of violent extremism often masks the positive role that religious actors can and do play. 

“Religion has been captured, taken over,” said Vinya Ariyaratne, the secretary general of Sarvodaya, a Buddhist faith-based organization in Sri Lanka, a country experiencing rising violent extremism couched in Buddhist terms. He spoke in a public panel discussion at USIP in Washington that was part of the five-day gathering. 

“It’s not really religion that has been driving youth and certain groups into extremism, but larger political interests, which is an important factor we have to consider,” he said.

'Complex factors' in extremism

Prior to the public event, the participants met for a daylong workshop on the theme, “Religious Actors Combating Radicalization and Violent Extremism.” Led by USIP Senior Program Officer Susan Hayward and Rule of Law Center Deputy Director Georgia Holmer, the group shared experiences and approaches they found worked best and then developed a draft list of recommendations for policymakers to consider for engagement with religious figures and activists.

Workshop participants emphasized that violent extremism is fueled by many complex factors, including psychological, socio-economic, political and ideological elements. Any effective solutions to counter such actions must address these multiple dimensions. Religious figures and activists are able to address many of these aspects, particularly psychosocial factors and effects, countering destructive narratives through education, and political advocacy – all realms in which many religious players are already involved.

In Nigeria, the Sultan of Sokoto, the Islamic spiritual leader for Nigerians has condemned Boko Haram and is leading efforts to prevent radicalization of young people. Salisu Shehu, who participated in the five-day initiative in the U.S. on the Sultan’s behalf, said their program includes youth employment programs that provide skills training and job-search assistance, in an effort to forestall some of the economic grievances that contribute to the vulnerability of young people to extremism.

The Sultan and Ibanga, the pastor of Jos Christian Missions International, also are working with others in faith groups to strengthen the ability of local communities to resist extremism by addressing community needs through collaboration, interfaith engagement and solidarity among Muslims, Christians, civil society and political leaders.

This kind of collaboration across elements of society became a common theme in the workshop and was identified as a key strength in countering violent extremism in much of the world, including in Syria, Sri Lanka and Burma.

Ariyaratne, from Sri Lanka, outlined the increase in Buddhist extremist violence in his country and stressed the need for a religious community to examine itself before working with others. As a lay Buddhist, Ariyaratne is involved in many inter-religious councils throughout Sri Lanka that are seeking responses to Buddhist/Muslim violence in their local context.

“If we prepare the religions and religious leaders first to look at their own religions before they have interfaith dialogues, we can have a very big impact,” he said. He said the workshop and public discussions highlighted parallels between the Sri Lankan and Burmese experiences.

Policy recommendations

The participants in the workshop and related events also voiced words of caution. Sometimes government policies to address extremist groups and the root causes of extremism are at odds with each other, or appear inconsistent. That can endanger those involved in countering violent extremism, particularly when the funding for their work comes from government sources.

“If you come with aid in the right hand, and a drone in the left, that creates questions,” Shehu, the Nigerian representative, said. “If violent extremists are killing people in one community indiscriminately, drones are doing the same. This recognition is very critical.” The following are some of the recommendations, which are still in final development, that the group originated for policymakers interested in supporting religious actors to counter violent extremism:

  • Don’t rely on military solutions to violent extremism.
  • Recognize that civil society and religious actors are on the frontlines, embedded in these communities, and have an important role to play in preventing radicalization and violent extremism at early stages.
  • Support these actors from behind, invisibly, realizing that overt support can put them at risk and/or undermine their legitimacy and efforts. The U.S. can engage openly with alliances and networks, but direct funding is often perceived with suspicion.
  • Engage religious actors from the beginning in identifying the problems and their solutions, rather than engaging them in solutions already devised by others in a way that can make them feel they’re being used rather than consulted.
  • Recognize that religious actors have a particular role to play in providing psycho-social support to those vulnerable to recruitment.
  • Support religious actors as viable political advocates in addressing the political dynamics that contribute to violent extremism, and even as potential intermediaries with extremists.
  • Understand that religious actors can use education in many ways to counter violent extremism by promoting peace and tolerance through corrective interpretations of dogma, through both formal and informal religious curricula, and through preaching. Recognize that religious actors can most effectively present counter-narratives within their own specific faith tradition, sect or group.
  • Have a nuanced understanding of religious actors, thinking beyond traditional categories (such as male clerics) to consider those who influence religious narratives or institutions. Engage women and youth religious actors, and be sensitive in how to engage religious-political actors, recognizing that they require another kind of engagement.
  • Convene smaller organizations and foster collaboration and alliances between civil society and faith-based groups within countries and transnationally.
  • Help religious actors seeking to support coexistence and peace to access appropriate secular, state and humanitarian resources to respond to community needs. Work to combat violent extremism should be integrated with good economic development.
  • Offer skills- and knowledge training to religious actors, helping them to understand work on countering violent extremism and to put it in culturally and religiously relevant frames.
  • Help religious actors leverage various vehicles for education, using mass media to amplify voices and counter-narratives, and to encourage critical thinking.
  • Support both intra- and interfaith efforts. Intra-faith may need to precede interfaith work to be effective, and is a more appropriate means for engaging extremist actors who may won’t get involved in interfaith work.
  • Respect the complexity within each religious community in any context, and recognize that any strategy to combat violent extremism must be rooted in a nuanced understanding of the unique drivers of that conflict.

Melissa Nozell is a program specialist in USIP’s Center for Religion and Peacebuilding.

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