It’s an idea that hasn’t been tried and found wanting, to say the least.
Robert P. George, new Chair of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, published this proposal on CNN’s news site on September 11.
A dozen years ago today, the 9/11 attacks brutally awakened the American people to the global reality of terrorism – of lethal groups like al Qaeda and the Taliban, which manipulate religion in violent pursuit of totalitarian aims.
In the ensuing years, the nation rightly focused on these groups, and especially on the regions of South Asia – including Afghanistan and Pakistan – and the Middle East.
Yet in many ways, an overlooked story of the past few years has been the disturbing rise of like-minded organizations elsewhere, particularly in Africa. As the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) has documented, the forces of violent religious extremism have gained footholds on the continent, terrorizing populations, violating fundamental rights including religious freedom, and posing a serious security threat to the region and potentially beyond.
Prof. George goes on to detail some accounts of such violence in Nigeria, Somalia and Mali, and the whole piece should be read and deeply appreciated in its entirety. He continues:
The question for the United States and its allies remains how best to counter such forces no matter where they appear. For years, the answer has been to employ a wide array of tools, from intelligence gathering to police work to military action. But if the fight is to succeed, it also must include efforts to promote freedom of religion or belief. This is a battle of ideas as much as brawn, and environments that promote freedom of thought and belief empower moderate ideas and voices to denounce extremist hatred and violence.
Central to this effort is understanding two things. First, extremist groups seek to capitalize on the fact that religion plays a critical role in the lives of billions. Nearly 84 percent of the world’s population has some religious affiliation. In many areas of the world, including the African continent, religion matters greatly.
Second, people across Africa (and elsewhere), Muslim and non-Muslim alike, are rejecting the hijacking of religion by these extremists. For some, this rejection has come from bitter personal experience.
Pay attention to this.
Wherever violent religious extremist groups have held sway, be it central Somalia or elsewhere, they have penetrated every nook and cranny of human endeavor, imposing their will on families and communities in horrific ways. In many instances, they have banned routine activities such as listening to music and watching television. They have crushed all forms of religious expression other than their own, even seeking to destroy historic Islamic religious sites. They have imposed barbaric punishments on dissenters, from floggings and stonings to beheadings and amputations.
As a result, especially in places where these forces operate, people want an alternative: They want the right to honor their own beliefs and act peacefully on them. And as a number of scholars in recent years have shown, societies where this right to religious freedom is recognized and protected are more peaceful, prosperous, and free of destabilizing terror.
Countries plagued by violent religious extremist forces have options which, while difficult, can be taken…
In other words, in a world where religion matters, a key answer to violent religious extremism in the post-9/11 era is for governments to act in such ways to affirm and protect freedom of religion. It is not only a moral imperative – it is a practical necessity, empowering people everywhere to choose a better way.
Ideas and ideologies have consequences. The time to apply this idea has arrived.