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

Bahrain: A troubled relationship

On Monday morning, a leading Bahraini human rights activist, Nabeel Rajab, was arrested. On Tuesday, the Bahraini courts suspended Bahrain’s main political opposition party. The arrest and suspension immediately provoked the condemnation of a number of international human rights organisations.

The UK’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) regularly publishes a list of human rights priority countries. Human rights priority countries are “human rights trouble spots” where the FCO deems the UK has the ability to influence change. In 2014, Bahrain was not included in the last of priority countries. After significant criticism, including from the Foreign Affairs Select Committee, the FCO did include Bahrain on its 2015 list.

Despite its inclusion on the FCO’s human rights priority list, Bahrain remains a key UK trading ally. Only this week, for example, reports emerged that Bahrain is paying the bulk of the costs of the construction of a new Royal Navy base in its country.

This blog reviews the evidence behind human rights violations in Bahrain in three key areas: freedom of expression, torture and the rule of law.

Freedom of expression

The Bahraini Government claims that the country permits freedom of expression. For example, Bahraini ministers have claimed that Bahrain has one of the freest press industries in the world.

However a number of international observers have contradicted this claim. The Human Rights Watch 2015 report noted that King Hamad, the Bahraini head of state, ratified laws which significantly increase the sentences for individuals who are adjudged to have offended the king, Bahrain’s flag, or the national emblem. Such crimes now carry a maximum jail term of seven years and a fine of up to 10,000 Bahraini dinars (£18,500). In addition, the report found that a number of photographers were arrested for carrying out professional activities. For example, Hussain Hubail, was sentenced by a court to a five-year prison term in April 2014 on charges that he used various social media accounts to “incite hatred of the regime,” promoted ignoring the law, and called for illegal demonstrations. The sentence was upheld in September 2015.

Similarly, Amnesty International’s 2015-16 report found that the Bahraini authorities “severely curtailed the rights to freedom of expression and association”. Amnesty offer the example of Nabeel Rajab who was arrested in April 2015 for posts on Twitter about the use of torture in Bahraini prisons and for criticising Saudi-led air strikes in Yemen. In May, an appeal court upheld his earlier six-month sentence for “publicly insulting official institutions”. Rajab was then re-arrested early Monday morning this week. The exact reasons for the re-arrest remain unclear.

Crucially, the FCO’s 2015 human rights report notes that “there are continued concerns regarding freedom of speech and expression and peaceful assembly”. Numerous rankings of press freedom also indicate that Bahrain heavily restricts freedom of expression. The Freedom of the Press Index 2015 - published by the nonpartisan US NGO, Freedom House - found that Bahrain ranked 84th of 97 countries for press freedom. Similarly, the 2016 World Press Freedom Index - published by Reporters without Borders - found that Bahrain ranked 162nd of 180 countries.


The Bahraini Government claims that it has significantly reduced the use of torture in the last 10 years. In 2014, the Bahraini Ministry of Interior published a report in which they denied the systemic use of torture by government.

This view is challenged by a number of international organisations. Human Rights Watch finds that torture of detainees continued, and worsened, in 2014. They report that individuals detained by the Criminal Investigations Directorate (CID) - a government agency responsible for investigating and prosecuting criminals - were routinely tortured. Detainees reported a range of torture methods used by the CID. These included electric shock, prolonged suspension in painful positions, severe beatings, threats to rape and kill, forced standing, exposure to extreme cold, and sexual abuse. They also note that Bahrain continues to use torture in its prisons.

Amnesty International found that torture and other forms of ill-treatment, remained routine, particularly within the CID. They report that police and other security officials frequently beat or otherwise abuse people when arresting them and transporting them to police stations. At Jaw Prison, one of Bahrain’s main prisons on the southeastern coast, detainees faced repeated beatings. They were also forced to sleep in tents. Following a disturbance at the prison in March 2015, prisoners were denied any communication with their families for several weeks.

The US Department of State human rights report concludes that the use of torture is widespread in Bahrain.

Rule of law

The Bahraini Government has argued that it fairly implements the rule of law. For example, it has stated that civil society institutions, human rights organizations, and media representatives are allowed to attend trials. However, Human Rights Watch reports only organisations which are sympathetic to the Government are offered such privileges.  

Amnesty International’s 2015-16 report finds that hundreds of Bahraini people were convicted in unfair trials on a number of charges such as rioting, illegal gathering or committing terrorism-related offences. Accordingly, many prosecutors in cases related to terrorism relied exclusively on the evidence of “confessions” which defendants claimed that interrogators had forced them to make under duress; some received death sentences.

Amnesty highlight the case of Abbas Jamil al-Samea’ and two other men who were sentenced to death in February 2015. The three defendants had been convicted of a bombing in March 2014. Amnesty states that, during the trial, the court failed to adequately pursue their allegations of torture and other ill-treatment by CID interrogators. The defendants were also denied access to their lawyers until their trial began; their lawyers were prevented from viewing the full case file, and their pleas to cross-examine prosecution witnesses were ignored.

Moreover, Amnesty also find that public officials often benefit from lenient sentences and frequent acquittals. For instance, in April 2015, a court acquitted a police officer of causing the death of Fadhel Abbas Muslim Marhoon, who had been shot January 2014. The officer was jailed for only three months for shooting a man in the stomach who was accompanying Abbas.

Similarly, Human Rights Watch finds a number of examples of unfair trials. For example, in February 2016, a Bahraini court convicted the secretary general of the largest legally recognised opposition political party, which was suspended this week, of three speech-related crimes and jailed him for four years. Human Rights Watch states that the presiding judge prevented defense lawyers from utilising evidence which may have prevented his prosecution. For example, the judge refused to allow defense lawyers to play recordings of the secretary general’s speeches for which he was convicted. The judge stated that “the intent of them is to raise doubts about the substantiating evidence that has persuaded the court.”


Most international observers find that Bahrain commits systemic human rights violations. More worryingly, many observers find little evidence of Bahrain reducing the number, or severity, of its violations. Yet, a Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy report, published this week, claimed that the UK has become “an unconditional ally” of Bahrain

This has significant implications for the FCO. It is always extremely difficult to measure the impact of the FCO’s ‘soft’, behind-the-scenes diplomacy. Working closely with foreign government’s may be the most effective way of reducing human rights violations. As the Chair of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee, Crispin Blunt MP, argued in a recent Bright Blue publication, “megaphone diplomacy and noisy condemnations will always be heard, but may not always be effective with the key decision makers”.

Yet, if the Bahraini Government is not reducing its human rights violations then the effectiveness of this ‘soft’ diplomacy must be questioned. The FCO risks being perceived to be “downgrading” human rights in favour of trade, particularly as it continues to permit Bahrain to fund a Royal Navy base.

James Dobson is a researcher at Bright Blue