Tuesday, November 29, 2016

My Lords, ladies and gentlemen, good afternoon. The question that we have been asked to address is: What role can religious leaders play in confronting extremism?

The simple answer to that is that religious leaders should emphasize the commonality of humanity, tolerance and the importance of empathy and social justice. In particular, where extremists misuse scripture to justify their violent actions, religious leaders have a duty to highlight the errors of these interpretations.


Just about every religious leader in the world — including Pope Francis; the Dalai Lama; and here, in London, the Caliph of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, who is the only counterweight to the Caliph of Daesh — has done this to some degree. Despite their noble efforts, there has been little improvement. To understand why, we need to ask a number of questions:

—What is the relationship and difference between religion and politics?

—How do we get religious extremism?

—What role does religion play in extremist ideologies?

—What can religious leaders actually do?

Political systems have two essential components: who exercises power and the value framework within which that power is exercised. In most cases, it is religion or the religious heritage of the politicians that provides the value systems by which power is exercised, or at least justified. Western Liberal Democracy draws many of its legal principles and frameworks from Judeo-Christian values. So, the two are usually linked that way.

The difference between religion and politics is that religion aspires people to high principles. Any compromise in these can be seen as a compromise in faith. Politics, on the other hand, necessitates pragmatism, which, in turn, requires compromise. That is why in systems that are primarily political, the pragmatism required to work with others with different outlooks and values can often be achieved.

In systems that are led by religious leaders, decisions made for pragmatic reasons are difficult because they can be seen as a weakness of faith. Such systems often lead to extremist offshoots.

That is not the only way extremism arises in religion. Scholars who have studied extremism have postulated that people develop extremist interpretations of religion when they experience social and political crises. I have confirmed this by looking at case studies that included the Dutch Reform Church’s support of apartheid, the development of the Hindutva ideology, and Islamism. In such circumstances, social and political grievances are interpreted as threats to the identity and values of believers, and religion is reinterpreted to confront those perceived as responsible for the threat.

In so doing, religious extremist ideologies primarily serve two purposes: they mobilize followers around their religious identity against the perceived threat, and they provide an ethical justification for violence and control over others.

So, what can religious leaders do to confront extremism? First, they must maintain a separation from power. They need to avoid having power or influencing who has power. But they should influence positively the debate on the values by which power is exercised. In particular, the values universal to all major religions of peace through the exercise of absolute justice, beneficence and altruistic love.

We are today being asked to offer policies that might be effective in countering extremism. Many policies are needed. Indeed, many already exist. But if these policies do not directly link to the religious principles I have mentioned, then they risk being ineffective.

For example, we must encourage governments to think more critically about the current fashion in foreign policies aimed at enforced regime change, where the price of the change is paid for the lives of innocent citizens. We have a bizarre situation now where, in order to be liberated from the oppression of dictators, many times more innocents die during and following liberation than if the oppression of the dictator continued.

Absolute justice requires that all people are equal before the law. That is not just within a country but also between countries. I think all of the countries represented here will not arm and encourage vigilante groups to fight crime, no matter how well meaning they may be. We know that eventually, these groups are likely to threaten the very peace and security they aim to protect. We only grant such power to police and other forces who can be controlled.

Why then do we encourage, arm and support groups in other countries? How many examples are there in recent times of such groups transitioning to peaceful governance? Not many. But there are many more examples of such groups becoming extremists. Indeed most of the prominent extremist groups have benefitted from either direct or indirect state support to develop their reigns of terror.

So while religious leaders should continue to [move toward] interfaith dialogue and encourage critical and accurate study of their scriptures, they should also focus on understanding that it is both local and global social and political crises that lead to extremism. They should advise and guide political leaders on how to work toward peace through universal justice, beneficence and altruistic love. That requires that the structures of international law and cooperation, imperfect as they may be, are upheld and strengthened, rather than being ignored and weakened.

Afzal Ashraf, Ph.D., served as a senior officer in the Royal Air Force and is an expert on cybersecurity and international affairs relating to terrorism and radicalization. These excerpts are from remarks given at the Sept. 7-9 International Leadership Conference in London.


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