Combating Extremism with Religion

Military leaders, scholars and theologians exchange ideas at symposium



ilitaries alone cannot defeat religious extremism, argued Ambassador Akbar Ahmed, the former Pakistani high commissioner to the United Kingdom  at a March 2017 symposium in Washington. The author of The Thistle and the Drone: How America’s War on Terror Became a Global War on Tribal Islam, Ahmed gave a keynote address focused on the need to understand the tribal origins and nature of Muslim-majority countries.

“You can’t solve a problem unless you understand what the problem is,” he told Unipath. “To end the violence of groups like [Daesh], we must understand the societies in which they are operating.”

To that end, he argued, counterextremist messaging must consider the tribal nature of much of the Muslim world, as well as the importance of Islamic values in these countries. For example, an effective counterextremist message would highlight the ways in which extremists have deviated from true Islam, as illustrated in the three key pillars of an ideal Muslim society: ‘ilm¸ knowledge; ahsan, compassion; and ‘adl, justice.

The seminar was organized jointly by the Near East South Asia Center for Strategic Studies (NESA) and the United States Army Central (ARCENT). The attending military officers and diplomats from Jordan, Kazakhstan, Kuwait, Pakistan, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia “understood exactly” what he meant, Ahmed said.

“They came up to me and said, ‘This is the most sensible thing we’ve heard yet,’” he said. “Some of these ideas are foreign to Western society, but extremely familiar to those in the Muslim world.”

ARCENT representatives, including ARCENT Commander Lt. Gen. Michael Garrett, also attended the symposium, titled “Religion in Conflict: Confronting Daesh through Religious Dissent, Engagement and Conflict Resolution.” The event centered on the idea of using religion as a tool to challenge extremism, and presentations focused on a variety of topics, including effectively developing counternarratives, filling the vacuum in post-conflict Syria, post-conflict interfaith relations and the future of political Islam.

Some speakers tackled policy issues, emphasizing that while military force may be necessary to combat extremism, it is far from sufficient. Timothy Shah, director for international research of the Religious Freedom Research Project at Georgetown University’s Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs, focused on the importance of religious freedom in preventing the spread of violent extremism.

“Situations of religious persecution are incubators of violence,” he told Unipath. “We place a lot of focus on trying to reinterpret religious teachings and understand the psychology of terrorists, but the main driver of extremism is really structural. When people are repressed or punished for their religious beliefs, people turn to violence.”

Here, he returned to a theme Ahmed, too, had expressed: the need to understand the sources of violence, so that the causes, rather than just symptoms, of extremism can be eliminated. Before using drones or other military force on a tribal society, for example, Ahmed advised his audience to consider the pillars of tribal society — a “code of honor” that depends on hospitality, courage in battle and revenge — which he said those fighting extremism have not adequately understood.

“If you use a drone on my village, the code of honor activates,” he said. “Now I must set out and take revenge.”

Violence, in other words, has only exacerbated the collapse of tribal society. To “squeeze out” the militant elements of society, the international community must instead counter extremists’ arguments by highlighting what Islam really preaches, he said.

“This way forward is long term, and it may be unconventional,” Ahmed said. “But without understanding, you can’t repair a fragmented society.”