One after another, the women told their stories: the stigma, the repeated questioning by officials, the police anti-terrorism units following them. The women had become civic activists after losing their sons or husbands to the lure of violent extremism. They said they just wanted to make sure no one else suffered the same pain. But all the authorities could see was the relative of an extremist.


It was divides like this between religious leaders or people of faith on the one hand, and police or government officials on the other, that the U.S. Institute of Peace sought to bridge in a recent symposium in Mombasa, Kenya, that brought together more than three dozen men and women of faith with government and security officials from 11 countries.

While participants agreed broadly that the religious community was vital to addressing radicalization, they didn’t necessarily agree on how.

The aim of the gathering, co-hosted by the Network for Religious and Traditional Peacemakers and Arigatou International, was to discuss ways that citizens and authorities could cooperate to reduce extremist violence. Terrorist attacks killed 29,376 people worldwide in 2015, according to the Institute for Economics and Peace’s Global Terrorism Index. Most of these deaths occurred in five countries--Iraq, Afghanistan, Nigeria, Pakistan and Syria, although 23 countries recorded their highest number of deaths from terrorism that year, six more than in 2014, according to the report.

In Kenya and worldwide, activists from faith-based traditions and civil society working on the frontlines to prevent extremist violence have expressed frustration that inadequate security and support diminishes their effectiveness and, at worst, puts their lives at risk. At the same time, government and security forces often insist that religious leaders and activists are not doing enough to counter extremist ideologies and the violence they spawn. Cooperation breaks down—or never develops in the first place—due to mistrust and complexities such as internal fragmentation and competition.

Mombasa and other areas along Kenya’s coast, with their mix of African, Indian, Arab and other cultures and a large Muslim population, have been particularly tense in recent years as the Kenyan government increasingly views them as fertile ground for recruitment by the Somalia-based al-Shabab extremist group. Non-governmental organizations have long complained about the Kenyan government’s heavy-handed approach, and civic organizations have clashed with officials as a result. In some cases, public protests turned violent.

Still, a range of credible and influential religious, civil society and government representatives from Kenya agreed to attend the symposium, held over four days ending Nov. 3. Groups like the Kenyan organization Sisters without Borders and the Council of Imams and Preachers of Kenya participated alongside counterparts from Asia, North America and the Middle East. They discussed the roadblocks to cooperation and shared examples of locally tailored approaches to preventing and countering violent extremism.

Key Barriers

One of the key barriers quickly became apparent: while participants agreed broadly that the religious community was vital to addressing radicalization, they didn’t necessarily agree on how religious leaders and people of faith could be involved.

Government and police representatives wanted religious leaders to support their security efforts by providing intelligence about violent extremists. But the religious leaders and faith-based community participants noted that an intelligence role for them is not only dangerous, but also ineffective in the goal of persuading citizens to help spot signs of radicalization or to support programs to de-radicalize and reintegrate those who’ve strayed. Many religious representatives also rejected the idea of direct financial support from government to implement programs countering violent extremism, although this remained a point of contention.

One participant from a war-torn country said that one solution that helps connect officials and religious leaders there is to meet in a location hosted by a neutral party that is trusted by both sides, such as a local or international non-governmental organization. Other participants agreed that such a solution could work for them as well.

Internal competition among a proliferation of religious councils or institutions and faith-based non-governmental groups was a point of frustration expressed by government representatives in the symposium. The rivalry makes it difficult to connect without unintentionally exacerbating divisions. Participants from the religious sector readily acknowledged the problem and noted the need to build trust and cohesion among themselves, possibly through coalitions and common platforms, before engaging governmental players.

Participants also cited the need for cooperation on the development and implementation of national strategies for countering violent extremism. Many government officials in the symposium said they felt they consulted sufficiently, but religious representatives disagreed. They said they should be included more fully at every stage of the process, from the planning to carrying out the provisions.

But cooperation depends on trust, another major bone of contention in the discussion, especially on the question of who determines which religious leaders and institutions are to be consulted. One example cited was legislation to regulate religious preaching in Kaduna State in northwestern Nigeria, the home of the Boko Haram extremist group. The bill was in some ways a continuation of laws in place for Kaduna state since 1984 that regulated religious speech and required Muslim and Christian preachers to be licensed by an interfaith council led by government and security officials in order to give public sermons in their places of worship. Opponents this year opposed the legislation on grounds that it contravened the1999 Nigerian constitution’s separation of state and religion.

Regulating Religious Preaching?

The same disagreements over the legislation emerged in Mombasa. Some symposium participants said the government should play a greater regulatory role over religious leaders and institutions, while others felt the government shouldn’t be allowed to interfere. Participants representing religious faiths opposed government standards and suggested instead that authorities allow and encourage the religious community to regulate itself as a way of building legitimacy. Examples of self-regulation that were highlighted included one in which communities choose their preachers on a rotational basis, as in Indonesia, or another in which local citizens hold their Imams accountable in an annual vote of confidence. Still, government participants remained skeptical of the ability of religious communities to regulate themselves.

Religious and faith-based civil society leaders also were worried about their personal safety because of their work on sensitive issues. Among the recommendations that emerged from the symposium were taking individual security precautions, working closely with government and civilian security structures and finding safe locations to meet that would be trusted by all parties.

But one suggestion that raised controversy was the idea of establishing community watch groups to protect citizens from violence. Some participants said such structures actually escalated conflict in communities such as in Finland and Indonesia, because the organizations became abusive and tried to assert dominance over others. Participants ultimately agreed that communities were best-protected against violent extremists when multiple community watch groups with diverse backgrounds worked together to both establish trust among them and serve as a check against potential abuses.

The reintegration of returnees also was an issue for most communities represented at the symposium. Suggestions that arose included establishing safe and trusted locations with training and appropriate staff to provide psycho-social support for returnees, their families and the communities receiving them.

The symposium concluded with each participant committing to a specific action to ensure greater collaboration among local religious, government and security representatives to counter and prevent violent extremism. Promised steps included regular, open consultations to promote cohesion within and across faiths, and trainings to better understand government operations and policies. Participants pledged to hold each other accountable and work together on their action plans.

USIP and the Network for Religious and Traditional Peacemakers continue to follow up, assisting with action plans and connecting participants to research, organizations and resources that can help them succeed.

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