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The Role for Religion in the Fight Against ISIS

The dismantling of the caliphate and weakening of ISIS, or Daesh, does not cease the cycle of violent extremism. According to the Global Terrorism Index, the number of terrorist attacks decreased by 44% in 2018 but more than 60 countries still experience one fatal terrorist attack a year. The April 21 Easter Sunday attacks in Sri Lanka claimed by ISIS and other persistent attacks on Afghan security forces, the Quetta market bombings in Pakistan reveal the pernicious and relentless nature of these extremists.

Religion & the CVE Industry

Policymakers and counter-terrorism (CT) experts realize that a military approach to terrorism will not address the appeal that violent extremism holds for non-state actors. In the past 18 years, the combination of government CT funds, development aid contracts, and defense contracts produced a booming industry with the mission of confronting terrorism at its core. This new industry emphasizes a society-wide approach to addressing the drift toward extremist ideologies and the appeal of racial, religious and ethnic supremacy. Countering violent extremism (CVE) activities involve tackling radical ideologies by engaging a wide spectrum of stakeholders.

The CVE programming sponsored by the United States, European Union, African Union, and the United Nations emphasizes the cooperation of law enforcement, researchers, educators, social service providers, civic activists, psychologists, faith leaders, public officials, business owners, and thought leaders to create strategic interventions to limit the growth of radicalism. The assumption is that if these groups generate educational campaigns and create awareness of radicalization recruitment efforts in their own communities, they will be able to prevent the spread of radicalism.

In the early phases of CVE designing and programming within the U.S. and UK models, there were fundamental constitutional questions on whether governments should fund and engage with religious communities or not. Proponents of CVE programming thought that religion, primarily Islam, was inherently a driver in violent extremism and there is a need to “find moderatesto advance an agenda of religious moderation. CVE designers viewed religious leaders as useful only for theological discussions in counter-narratives to neutralize the ideas put forth by al Qaeda, then by Daesh.

To complicate matters, CVE policymakers did not understand the full range of religious leaders or the depth and breadth of religious institutions, nor did they have experts to provide guidance on religious literacy, practices, and their complex relationships with local, national and international authorities. International conferences focused on the intricacies of Wahhabism versus Salafism; policymakers created a taxonomy of quietist versus activist Salafis around the world and believed engaging with “quietist nonviolent” Salafis could help counterbalance the jihadist Salafis. Graeme Wood’s famous Atlantic Monthly article, “What ISIS Really Wants,” stated that “Quietist Salafism offers an Is­lamic antidote to (ISIS)-style jihad­ism” and evoked the colonial policy of “good Muslim vs. bad Muslim,” and stirred a lively debate on Wood’s assumption as well.

The role of religion in countering violent extremism — especially during the peak of Daesh’s rise after the capture of Mosul, Iraq, in 2014 — was tied to an abstract computation of funding a religious leader’s organization, building trusted networks, and supporting the dissemination of CVE messaging about peace and pluralism. Considering religious engagement as an aspect of security was problematic to some, but others argued that the stakes were too high to ignore the role of religious actors in CVE activities.    

Engaging Religion, Gauging Religion

From 2015-2018, CVE designing, programming, and evaluation evolved toward engaging religion as a way to justify funding and the source of new funding sources.  Policy discourses courting nonviolent Sufis while discrediting Salafis were part of an attempt to end the rise of violent jihadists. As the unpredictable events of the Arab Spring unfolded, fears arose about the removal of authoritarian governments by civil societies that would vote Islamists into power in Egypt and Tunisia. Global jihadists would have access to Islamist governments or cooperate with Muslim Brotherhood organizations, which would open another chapter in their development.  

From Morocco to Indonesia and beyond, Islamic religious leaders felt the immediate social and political effects of violent extremism and pressure to undertake CVE activities. As paid civil servants, religious leaders understand which lines not to cross when discussing national security issues. In the race to secure communities from the lure of violent extremist propaganda, CVE programming meant to aggressively thwart extremism was designed for imams, scholars, religious leaders, and their institutions. But, to the surprise of CVE policymakers, Islamic religious leaders and their institutions are not truly independent actors, free to implement education reforms or speak on CVE principles.

However, engaging religion in CVE activities created a civil society more open to anti-violence efforts. For example, in 2017 the U.N. Office on Genocide Prevention and the Responsibility to Protect sponsored the Fez Process, where over 100 organizations from every major world religion signed on to a Plan of Action to prevent the incitement of violence. The Fez Process, based on preventing violence, strengthening collaboration and capacity building, and creating inclusive and peaceful communities, illustrates religion’s shift from a CVE-based role to one focused on building coalitions and defending human rights.

Got Religion?

Now, in what could be called “a post-ISIS” era, the roles of religious leaders are transforming immensely not only because of CVE programming activities but also because of a global recognition that they have been neglected or ignored in state-civil society relations.

It is more common to see imams and pastors organizing and facilitating CVE training workshops for clergy, professors, students, social workers, media, and local opinion makers. Religious leaders have produced manuals for their constituents on understanding the root causes of grievances, drivers of exclusive in-group thinking, narratives of extremists, and how traditional principles of ethics can transcend violent actions. Their unique contribution to CVE is the development of an educational curriculum with existing countering narrative modules that have practical applications.  

On April 29, Pakistan announced that 30,000 historically independent religious schools (madrassas) will be under government control in order to expand students’ education beyond theology with subjects like history, biology, accounting, economics, and courses on pluralism. For over three decades, Pakistani religious civil society members have been exploited for jihadist-political ambitions which resulted in worsening sectarianism and a generation of religious leaders prone to political activism. Now, a critical mass of religious and non-religious stakeholders understand how to operate in a milieu of violent extremism. Religious scholars and nongovernmental organizations together have produced a transnational network whose expertise is in non-violent anti-jihadist messaging.

CVE policymakers need to right-size their expectations of religious leaders working to end conflicts while living in war zones and under authoritarian regimes. These leaders are implementing training workshops focused on CVE counter-messaging best practices, but they need assurances that the state can provide basic security. U.S. policy strategists, in particular, need to rethink their approach to engaging religion. Scholars do not mystically divert jihadists from violent extremism; rather, they have trained a new cadre of young sophisticated scholars already versed as practitioners in CVE and conflict resolution.

Dr. Qamar-ul Huda is Director of the Conflict, Stabilization and Development program at the Center for Global Policy (CGP). Prior to joining CGP, Dr. Huda was a Senior Policy Advisor to the U.S. Department of State Secretary’s Office of Religion and Global Affairs. He tweets at @qbhuda. The views expressed herein are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect those of CGP.