The Power of Engagement

For years, jihadi groups around the world have fought for the creation of an Islamic state. Across Syria and Iraq, and now parts of Libya, Egypt and Nigeria, the Islamic State (IS) claims to have created one. Meanwhile, religious extremists displace thousands in Nigeria, burn villages in India, and are on the verge of committing genocide of religious minorities in Myanmar.

The ideological power of this religious extremism comes in both hard and soft forms. Governments and traditional religious authorities are struggling to counter both aspects, often appearing under-prepared, under-resourced and uncertain. There is an urgent need to convey a more powerful idea through an organised and coherent strategy to counter this fluid, innovative and fast changing threat.

Religiously inspired narratives, simultaneously very modern and rooted in a selective or imagined history, lie at the heart of the ideological power of today’s extremism. These overarching narratives can easily be molded to address very local grievances across a range of contexts, possessing the ideological power of the communist and fascist movements of the twentieth century. Groups such as Hezbollah have expertly weaved their narratives into both the delivery of social services and the use of militias and force to cement their domestic position, international support, legitimacy and political power.

In consolidating their power, extremist groups are not guided by election cycles, nor do they abide by traditional conceptions of government or the nation state. IS and Boko Haram tear down “colonial” borders and say they have established a universal caliphate for all Muslims.

Modern states lack the mechanisms for dealing with such powerful transnational ideological forces. The battlefield in Syria shows the extent to which these power structures have shifted, and highlights the challenge the international community, national governments and religious authorities face in developing and adopting nuanced policies and messages to counter and control religious extremism at home and abroad.

Extremist groups are digital natives, public relations experts and brand strategists. They have successfully harnessed the power of social media to appeal directly and simplistically to grassroots believers, especially youth. In the Middle East as well as further afield, traditional authorities are being undermined, and with them centuries of complex interpretive tradition.

This foreshadows the collapse of the interfaith project in the face of the extremists’ claims to absolute religious truth and their separation of the world into two ideological camps: those for and those against.

In hurrying to counter this narrative, governments all too often reinforce and feed the extremists’ agenda, missing a vital point. Reducing conflict to “religion” often becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Views that ascribe religious violence solely to the religions themselves rather than the human perpetrators encourage a sense of fatalism and helplessness.

The arc of extremism is a global problem, a shared threat that affects all religious groups and all societies. From IS and al-Qaeda to Buddhist nationalism fuelling sectarian sentiment in Myanmar; Christian militias marauding across Africa; the appropriation of Judeo-Christian narratives by far-right movements, such as PEGIDA, across Europe and the US; and the emergence of fervent militant secularism, the problem is endemic, not only between groups but also within them.

In countering this threat, “the decisive battlefield”, said Madeline Albright, “will be one of ideas”. It is important to see this clash of ideas, not in terms of religion and beliefs, but as a contest between respectful and open-minded attitudes, and closed-minded intolerance and division.

To build a global coalition to inoculate against extremism, particularly in our young people, we need to go beyond the common portrayal of counter-extremism as solely a reactive, hard power or security issue.

Heavy handedness often succeeds only in reinforcing grievances and alienating the very groups with which we need desperately to engage. Strategies require a nuanced approach with which governments often struggle, and which corporations, educators and civil society cannot ignore.

There is no single answer, no quick fix to address this issue, although literacy in religion as a global force will be a crucial part in ensuring informed decision-making. We must develop a diverse range of innovative and adaptable short and long-term solutions to this global problem, spanning the full range of the hard-soft power spectrum that the extremists have proven so adept in navigating.

Work is underway to do this through attempts at capacity building, developing powerful narratives against extremists and through education initiatives to make sure that the next generation is equipped with the resilience to resist extremist voices.

Extremist groups across the world are well funded, well organised and have a simple and effective message. A successful response will need to match this power.

Most importantly, we need a strong idea of what we stand for, rather than just what we stand against. The global community needs to be aware of, engaged with, and proactive in getting ahead of this narrative, to protect the generations of the future.

By Matthew Lawrence
Matthew Lawrence is director of programmes at the Tony Blair Faith Foundation. BY MATTHEW LAWRENCE

Published on May 11, 2015 [ Vol 16 ,No 784]



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