Analysis: Countering religious extremism

By SHAUN WATERMAN, UPI Homeland and National Security Editor  |  Oct. 31, 2007 at 2:38 PM
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WASHINGTON, Oct. 31 (UPI) -- To a hammer, the whole world looks like a nail, so it is perhaps not surprising that U.S. lawmakers should seek to legislate victory in the ideological conflict with violent Islamic extremists.

The House has already passed a bill setting up a commission to study the topic, and the Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee, which held a hearing on the issue this week, is also considering legislation.

“Our plan,” said one of the sponsors of the House bill, Rep. Jane Harman, D-Calif., “must be to intervene before a person crosses that line separating radical views from violent behavior, to understand the forces at work on the individual and the community, to create an environment that discourages disillusionment and alienation, that instills in young people a sense of belonging and faith in the future.”

But a recent study of violent extremism across all three Abrahamic faiths suggests there is little governments can do in this battle of ideas -- except to avoid poisoning the waters for moderate religious leaders and other opinion-formers who can actually have an impact on the outcome.

The study, published by the East-West Institute, a non-partisan global research institute based in New York, Moscow and Brussels, is based on a year’s research into three case studies of violent religious extremism: ultra-Zionist settlers in Israel, fundamentalist Muslims in Britain and white supremacist Christians in the United States.

The research findings were reviewed at a major conference over the summer attended by religious leaders, officials from the U.S. and Middle Eastern governments, and academics, East-West Institute Vice President Neville Bugwadia told United Press International.

“One point of widespread agreement at the (institute’s) conference was that any faith plagued by extremists must ultimately ‘get its own house in order,’ that faith leaders do not want outsiders ‘meddling in their religions,’ and that government is especially ill-suited for doing so,” wrote the study’s authors, introducing their policy recommendations.

“Leading persons of faith and civil society must then play the more active and interventionist role,” they add, including, for religious leaders, “an increased focus on … inter-faith dialogue,” raising the level of theological literacy of their co-religionists and “mobilizing moderates, especially to ‘name and shame’ those who preach hate and violence.”

Civil society leaders should focus on “providing alternative social movement structures” for those at risk of being targeted for recruitment and “providing a framework for intervention.”

Governments, the study’s authors recommend, “should leave proactive interventions” in the ideological struggle “to the relevant faith communities and civil society.”

Governments should “avoid militarizing conflict with extremists, follow the rule of law and take a consistent approach towards extremists and extremism regardless of the faith in question, and address asymmetries of knowledge.”

Paraphrasing Clausewitz, they add that their recommendations “may be simple, but that does not mean they are easy.”

On the issue of militarization, the study acknowledges that “where the threat is external, the military may need to be employed.”

But its authors point out that all of the extremist groups studied “and most terrorist groups in general, see themselves as engaged in a war with the government. … When law enforcement agencies conduct military (style) operations … this only further legitimizes these groups’ claims in their own minds and among their supporters.”

“In all circumstances,” they conclude, “government officials should avoid using war references or terminology.”

The study wades unapologetically into the vexed debate about nomenclature. “”Combating violent extremism perpetrated in the name of religion is, at its core, an ideational struggle. In such an undertaking, words matter.”

Terminology should have the goal of “de-linking those who perpetrate violence from the religion in whose name they claim to act.”

But they admit that finding “a new way of labeling all violent extremists that is faith-neutral” is a “Herculean” task.

And it could fall to the National Commission on the Prevention of Violent Radicalization and Ideologically Based Violence that the House bill, passed last week, would establish.

The 10-strong commission, each member chosen by a different U.S. official from the president to the homeland security secretary and the leaders of the House, Senate and their relevant committees, would be charged to “examine and report upon the facts and causes of violent radicalization, homegrown terrorism and ideologically based violence in the United States,” according to a summary of the bill prepared by House staff.

The bill would also set up a Center of Excellence for the Prevention of Radicalization and Home-Grown Terrorism “to examine the social, criminal, political, psychological and economic roots of domestic terrorism.”

The bill would direct the homeland security secretary and other federal agencies to review the strategies used by U.S. allies against home-grown terrorists, and, “if the methods used by foreign nations do not conflict with constitutional safeguards,” directs that they be “considered” when “formulating United States policies addressing violent radicalization and home-grown terrorism.”

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