To combat extremism we must protect religious freedom

If we are to effectively defeat ISIS and others, protecting religious freedom is central to our mission.  Allowing the world to be characterised by division only reinforces the ‘us vs them’ narrative of extremists.

In recent years, across the world, we’ve seen multiple violations of religious freedom.

Christians in the Middle East are being forcibly removed, whilst those who stay face the threat of attacks such as the church bombing in Egypt last month -- ISIS have stated that similar attacks will come.

In Myanmar, the Muslim Rohingya minority have faced discrimination and violence from the country’s Buddhist majority. There have been continuous attacks on their religious freedom -- many have long been denied citizenship and have been subjected to harsh restrictions on their freedom of movement, meaning their access to services and jobs is diminished. In recent months, in restive Rakhine state, an attack by suspected Islamist militants from that minority left police officers dead and led to a military operation that has reportedly led to civilian deaths, rape by security forces, and thousands fleeing across the border to Bangladesh.  

Anti-Semitism is commonplace in many Muslim majority countries; a recent ADL poll found that 74% of people in the Middle East and North Africa harbour anti-Semitic attitudes.

In India, Hindu nationalist narratives have, over time, become more commonplace. Through these narratives, we’ve seen religious minorities, primarily Muslims and Christians, in India being side lined. Central to ‘Hindutva’, ideology of the Hindu nationalists, is the idea of Hindu primacy and supremacy. In Pakistan, they’ve recently bolstered their blasphemy laws, placing restrictions on the freedom of non-Muslims.

Short-term security measures are vital to defeating groups like ISIS, ensuring the death and destruction they cause is minimised. But if we are to defeat Islamist extremism in the long term, we have to take on and defeat the ideas put forward by extremists, and present a coherent alternative.

Part of the solution to the problem of religious extremism, is ensuring that we aren’t creating the conditions that extremists thrive upon when attracting people to their ideology. Protecting religious freedom is central to that mission. Societies that embrace and protect pluralism are less likely to breed extremism. It’s why it’s important that the British Government keep open, inclusive and pluralist values at the centre of their counter extremism strategy.

If people live in a world characterised by prejudice, they are going to be more susceptible to radicalisation, finding an affinity in the ‘us vs them’ narrative perpetrated by extremists.

In order to effectively counter extremism, we have to take on religious prejudice, in all its forms, ensuring that extremists are unable to harness this bias to radicalise potential recruits.

Embracing this closed-minded approach only aids the cause of extremists. If we are to defeat groups like ISIS and others, we have to fight for open-minded approaches, on a personal and societal level.

Part of the solution too is demonstrating that the West is not at war with Islam. A lie espoused by Islamists who want to entrench this ‘us vs them’ narrative. ISIS knows that they must create a common enemy if they are to strengthen their number of fighters and protect their so-called caliphate.

Dismantling this narrative is central to our success. ISIS’ caliphate is no different to any other tyrannical regime that has gone before. All tyranny needs a common enemy to keep their ‘followers’ in check. Without such an enemy the chances of their followers becoming deserters or dissidents increases.

All of us, Muslim or otherwise, are at war with Islamists and other extremists. Let’s not forget that the people who suffer most at the hands of extremists are Muslim. The Centre on Religion and Geopolitics’ Global Extremism Monitor tracks extremist activity daily. During the months of July-September 2016, four of the five largest terror attacks were in Muslim-majority countries.

Muslims are the first victims of Islamist violence, they have the greatest stake of us all in combating extremism and are our greatest allies in this fight.

We have to create a global movement, willing and able to counter the ideas of extremists, led by people with a strong desire to reclaim their faith from the hands of ISIS and others. We must combat closed minds by keeping ours open.

A recent report by the Centre on Religion and Geopolitics, found that 91 per cent of the counter-narrative initiatives online against extremism are Muslim-led. We must endeavour to do all we can to ensure their efforts are properly supported.

Protecting religious freedom, pluralism, and secularism is incredibly important in this fight.

If we allow our world to be characterised by division, then we can only expect that division to help create extremism. If you are told that the world is black and white, that there are good religions and bad religions, then this will only create minds ripe for radicalisation. Literalism breeds extremism.

Only by protecting and enhancing the freedoms that characterise the West -- freedom of expression, freedom of belief, freedom of religion -- can we limit the ability of ISIS and others to attract people to their cause. The battle for open minds is on, it is the battle of our age, and it is one we have to win.

Angela Salt OBE is Chief Executive of the Tony Blair Faith Foundation