Panelists debate the complex role religion and religious leaders play in causing or preventing violent extremism.


Religion, Governments, and Preventing Violent Extremism: What Have We Learned?

By: Devon O'Dwyer

February 13, 2019

A panel of experts on global peacemaking and international security debated the complex role religion and religious leaders play in causing or preventing violent extremism.

The discussion “Religion, Governments, and Preventing Violent Extremism: What Have We Learned?” featured Mohamed Elsanousi, the executive director of the Network for Religious and Traditional Peacemakers; Susan Hayward, a senior advisor for religion and inclusive societies at the United States Institute of Peace; and H.A. Hellyer, a senior associate fellow in international security studies at the Royal United Services Institute in London. Peter Mandaville, a Berkley Center senior research fellow, moderated the panel.

Mandaville opened the discussion by framing the debate as centered around two critical questions: firstly, how important religion is as a factor in violent extremism, and secondly, what kind of role religion and religious leaders can play in countering these groups.

Drivers of Violent Extremism

A major question speakers grappled with is what role ideology plays in violent extremism. Hellyer argued that there are many factors that contribute to violent extremism, but that religious ideology plays a role only in a minority of cases. He also argued that policymakers tend to place the blame on ideology as they seek clear-cut answers to the problem.  

The idea of a singular process of radicalization is something that isn’t really backed up by the data.

Hellyer noted, “I think we have a number of different types of processes that are unfolding, and it is dependent on geography, background, political circumstances, really across the board.”

Hayward offered insights into Buddhism and militancy in Myanmar in comparison to more traditional violent extremist organizations. Her work has revealed that Buddhist groups in Myanmar are different from many terrorist organizations in that they do not use violence as a means to achieve a religious end, but do share other similarities. These can include anxiety about modernity, globalization, and the processes of secularization.

“What drives these Buddhist groups in particular is an anxiety that is rooted in recognition that the Buddhist world does not have the same degree of influence, power, global domination, and so on as the Christian and Muslim world,” Hayward said, “so it’s also driven by this sense of existential threat.”

Religion as Prevention

The panel discussed the ability and limitations of religious leaders to prevent violent extremism. Elsanousi argued that religious leaders are often on the front line and therefore can have a large impact on preventing violent extremism, especially given that 80 percent of the world’s population is associated with a religion.

Ban Ki-Moon, the former secretary-general of the United Nations, realized that the role of religious actors and institutions is underutilized. That’s why he called for a mechanism to further actually engage religious and traditional actors in many issues, including countering violent extremism.

Hellyer argued that the effectiveness of religious leaders’ role is dependent on whether they are preventing or countering extremism. In cases of prevention, religious leaders may have more space to develop relationships and provide resources that could stop extremist ideology from taking root.

When countering existing movements, however, Hellyer argued that religious groups are often constrained by their inability or unwillingness to be critical of both violent acts committed by terrorist groups and violence by opposing state actors. As a result, religious leaders lose credibility with individuals who have already been radicalized.

Inclusivity and Religious Leaders

The panel also discussed the importance of taking an inclusive approach when addressing religious leaders to counter violence. In particular, while religious leaders are usually assumed to be older men with formal religious titles, many women—both those who have official titles and those who do not—are highly engaged and involved in their religious communities.

In particular, Hayward referred to women who often can gain special access and exert influence on extremists because they are simultaneously seen as non-threatening and as having religious authority. Unfortunately these women are generally ignored when formal delegations and peace talks are organized. Finally, Hayward emphasized the need for government leaders to view religious leaders as playing an effective role in combating violence that goes beyond the theological realm.

I think sometimes our fascination with religious ideology constrains the way that we engage with religious actors.

Hayward remarked, “I often encourage our government actors to ensure that the ways in which they’re engaging with religious actors goes beyond narratives, seeing them as social and political actors that can address a range of issues that have to do with the drivers of violence.”

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