Briefing Note: Global Response to Rise in Religious Violence

At a Glance

Briefing Note: Global Response to Rise in Religious Violence

29 Apr 2015

The debate over countering extremism is increasingly driven by those countries most affected by the violence, a trend which may influence international policymaking.

The last month has seen a series of summits and high-level conferences around the world, addressing concern over international extremism and religious violence. The latest meetings of the Association for South East Asian (ASEAN), the Tana Forum for African leaders, the Asian-African Summit, as well as the United Nations General Assembly have all been driven by a counter-extremism agenda, as nations recognise the importance of fitting their national countering violent extremism policies within a broader international framework.

Much of the debate is being led by those countries most affected by the symptoms of religious extremism, particularly in developing nations in Asia, Africa and the Middle East. As well as demonstrating the truly global nature of the threat, this simultaneously shows the changing paradigm of what used to be perceived by some as a Western-led 'war on terror'.

Although many strategies are specific to the context of the challenge faced in-country, a number of themes emerged around the world, including moderation, dialogue, secularism and powerful counter-narratives, as concrete responses to the global challenge of countering extremism. Here the Centre on Religion & Geopolitics examines the key policy outcomes, as well as some of the pressing challenges faced, by leaders around the world.

'Moderation' in Kuala Lumpur

Regional leaders began arriving in Malaysia for the ASEAN summit on the same day that twelve men, purportedly linked to ISIS, were arrested in possession of explosives, as authorities foiled a plan to attack locations across Kuala Lumpur. Accordingly, Malaysia has used its ASEAN chairmanship this year to push to strengthen regional cooperation to fight terrorism, and in particular the ISIS threat.

One of the most significant outcomes was the endorsement by ASEAN leaders of the Langkawi Declaration on the Global Movement of Moderates (GMM), which promotes moderation as an important ASEAN value. It includes several measures to undertake in their respective countries to help curb extremism throughout the region, including organising outreach programmes, interfaith and cross-cultural dialogues.

"We recognise that moderation is a core value in the pursuit of long-lasting peace and a tool to diffuse tensions, negate radicalism and counter extremism in all its forms and manifestations," reads the Declaration, saying that "moderation guides action which emphasises tolerance, understanding, dialogue, mutual respect and inclusiveness and is a tool to bridge difference and resolve disputes."

"Moderation guides action which emphasises tolerance and mutual respect".

Malaysian Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak, who has championed 'moderation' over the past five years as a tool for bridging differences, said "We must put forward a positive narrative of moderation, of hope and of peace. And here in South-East Asia, we are not short of such narratives." Najib expressed concern about the effect of extremism on the region's religious minorities, "We know from both our histories and our present times that the spark of extremism can too easily be fanned into flames. In Malaysia, we number Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists and Christians among our citizens... Irresponsible, rabble-rousing talk can swiftly lead to the persecution of minorities who have been part of the tapestry of our region for centuries."

‘Secularism’ in Addis Ababa

The Tana Forum, which works to provide strategies on security issues facing the African continent, found that "politicised faith" represents one of the most disruptive challenges facing Africa today, and that the stability of the continent is being undermined by the activities of groups driven solely by exclusionary religious agendas and strategies. The forum pointed to examples across Africa, including Egypt, Ethiopia, Mali, Nigeria, Somalia, Central Africa Republic and Sudan, where the manipulation of religion to meet political ends, address grievances, recruit disenchanted youth, and disrupt societal harmony and widen existing tensions, is on the rise.

Kenya's President Uhuru Kenyatta pointed out that Africa is historically a continent that accommodates different religions, but that the aspiration of the global jihadi movement to create a caliphate is feeding into an "unprecedented ideology driven by extremist violence." Pointing to Kenya's experience of this extreme violence at Garissa University College, where 147 people, mainly students, were murdered, he said the terrorists' objective is to trigger inter-religious conflict; seen at Garissa when al-Shabaab militants separated students on the basis of religion. In the wake of this atrocity, reinforcing a narrative of a tolerant Kenya will be essential to encourage resilience against extremism, rather than engaging in a heavy-handed security response that alienates parts of the population.

One of the main themes of the Forum was the need to develop a secularism underscored by the tolerance of differing opinions and religious beliefs, as delegates agreed it was the responsibility of governments, but also citizens, to promote peaceful co-existence among religions. With a focus on tackling the structural factors and root causes of extremism, rather than dwelling on the symptoms, the Forum concluded that thought-leaders in Africa have a pivotal role to play in the construction of new social narratives that foster a spirit of citizenship in young people and provide them with avenues for integration and engagement.

‘Ideology’ and ‘Poverty’ in Jakarta

Drawing together these African and Asian regional responses to the shared threat of extremism was the Asian–African Strategic Partnership in Jakarta, a biennial meeting of foreign ministers from across the two continents, encouraging political solidarity, economic cooperation, and socio-cultural relations between Africa and Asia. Counter terrorism is one of the eight Focus Areas of Cooperation of the partnership and Indonesia, which faces a number of extremist threats to its historical pluralism, is the Champion Country on this topic from the Asian region, alongside Algeria, which is struggling against a resurgent jihadi insurgency, from the African region. The meeting prioritised terrorism-related issues during discussions, and in particular the need to reject Islamophobic stereotypes and moral and financial support for violent extremism.

Recognition is growing for the need to understand the role of ideology in conflicts.

The range of challenges related to extremism faced by different countries in the summit was obvious, although all Asian and African foreign ministers agreed on the pressing need to challenge extremism in their respective countries. Initiatives proposed to step up efforts to combat terrorism ranged from Iran's focus on confronting dangerous ideologies, to a Somali commitment to combat the poverty and poor education which fuel al-Shabaab recruitment narratives in the country. Indonesian Vice President Jusuf Kalla emphasised the urgent need for international action against this threat, saying that "Such an ideology could become a virus in a weak country. We should prevent together such an ideology entering our countries."

‘Dialogue’ and ‘Tolerance’ at the United Nations

The UN General Assembly's debate on 'Promoting Tolerance and Reconciliation: Fostering Peaceful, Inclusive Societies and Countering Violent Extremism,' shows that recognition is growing in the international community for the need to better understand the role that ideology and religion can play in conflicts. Sam Kahamba Kutesa, the President of the General Assembly, noted that 2015 had been one of the worst years for such violence around the world, with violent attacks being carried out against innocent civilians in places of worship, museums, supermarkets, schools and historical sites. "From Paris to Tunis; from Garissa to Yarmouk; from Johannesburg to Peshawar; no person, society or nation is immune from intolerance and the threat of terrorism or violent extremism."

The debate recognised the complexity of the challenge presented by identity-based conflicts, as well as cultural and religious tensions, recommending that a wide range of approaches was necessary to counter the threat of extremism, and promote respect and freedom of belief. Echoing the calls from the Asian and African summits, dialogue – including among religious leaders – was highlighted as an important tool for fostering peaceful, inclusive societies. The conference also found that global efforts to promote tolerance from organisations such as the UN were complemented by the sorts of national and regional efforts seen in the other summits highlighted.

In a speech at the end of the two-day session General Secretary Ban Ki-moon emphasised the global scale of the battle of ideas against extremist narratives. "Violent extremism is not a North-South or East-West issue. It is not confined to a particular region or religion. It transcends borders and exists across the world. Religion does not cause violence; people do." Drawing on common themes of the importance of moderation, Ban implored media "to do more to amplify the voice of the moderate majority so we may drown out those who preach violence and hatred" and "to do more to avoid falling into the trap of providing fringe elements and provocateurs with the very attention they seek."

The issues of radicalisation and extremism are nuanced and complex, and most often rooted in local drivers and grievances. However as extremist narratives continue to become increasingly internationalised, the global community is realising the importance of a comprehensive and coordinated response to this shared threat.


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