Religious leaders can’t fight terrorism with ideas alone

(RNS) — Efforts to counter violent extremism are in full swing around the world. In 2017 at the United Nations, Jordan and Norway established a United Nations Permanent Friends Group for Preventing Violent Extremism (PVE). And this summer PVE sponsored the second Global Meeting on Preventing Violent Extremism in Oslo.

The global PVE and CVE communities agree: It is impossible to defeat terrorism with military strategies alone. They believe engaging a broad spectrum of stakeholders from civil society is the key to preventing violent extremism and building up resilient communities.

But there’s a problem. These groups hold to the simplistic idea that civil society members should be the first line of defense for preventing the spread of violent extremist ideology without considering the contexts and conditions in which civilians operate.

These efforts to combat extremism build on tragically flawed assumptions. They presume religious leaders are free to act independently and construct counternarratives in their communities. But they’re often coerced by authoritarian pressure and preoccupied with a dearth of basic material resources. Such factors make them ineffective CVE partners in many cases

CVE programming by the United States, the European Union, the African Union and the United Nations emphasizes cooperation among law enforcement, faith leaders and others to limit the growth of radicalism. The assumption: If these groups use education to raise awareness of radicalization in their own communities, they will be the first line to defend against it.

Prominent CVE funders think that local and regional civil society CVE practitioners, armed with education, training and CVE jargon, will saturate social media outlets to drown out the appeals of violent extremists.

But can CVE training workshops actually help religious leaders in fragile states and in war zones to reduce or prevent the lure of radicalism?

In authoritarian states like Egypt and Turkey, for example, religious leaders fall into a hierarchy of bureaucrats, technocrats and ineffective systems of governance. The state controls which imams or pastors are allowed to speak at CVE events. And national security officials determine which events take place. Religious leaders are not allowed to act on their own behalf, motivated solely by their beliefs. Instead, their actions often must serve the ends of the state.

In other countries, such as Lebanon, Morocco, Algeria, Iraq and Sudan, imams and other religious leaders are paid civil servants. As government employees, these religious leaders need permission from local police, senior tribe members and several bureaucracies, among others, before proceeding with any program.

As paid civil servants, religious leaders understand which red lines not to cross when it comes to national security issues or personal political aspirations of their superiors. But this fact is often lost on CVE experts who wrongly regard them as independent actors, free to assess or implement programs based on ethical religious principles.

The dynamics become even more complicated in war zones and in sectarian-driven conflicts such as those in Yemen, Libya and Syria. In those settings, religious leaders and their communities struggle to access food, water and shelter. They’re displaced from homes and hard-pressed to ensure community members, including children, aren’t kidnapped or recruited into militias.

I have attended CVE training workshops for religious leaders that were marketed as conflict prevention workshops. Facilitators focused on generic root causes of grievances, drivers of exclusive in-group thinking, narratives of extremists and how religion can transcend “irrational violent actions.” Organizers appear out of touch with on-the-ground realities.

I’ve also interviewed imams from Yemen, Libya and Afghanistan. They’re dealing with starving communities where children do not have access to safe schools. They’re not interested in countering narratives when their communities are struggling just to survive.

These imams are already facing immense pressure from their own despotic governments. They are operating among warlords, militias, organized crime, competing militant groups and tribal fiefdoms. They’re dealing with infectious diseases and psychological disorders related to war. CVE doesn’t make sense to them, but they will go through the motions of attending a CVE workshop to satisfy someone above them.

War, conflict zones and state authoritarianism are not the only impediments religious leaders face in implementing CVE strategies. With the diminishing presence of the Islamic State group in Iraq, ISIS fighters are collaborating with local militant groups elsewhere in the Middle East, North Africa and Southeast Asia through training, funding and technical assistance.

Local religious leaders are very aware of the new militant recruiters attempting to infiltrate their communities. Unfortunately, they are caught between hard counterterrorism efforts by the government’s military forces and the intense pressure to implement CVE programs.

Religious leaders in conflict zones can still be effective resources for prevention programs. But CVE experts need a different approach that involves tackling bureaucratic hurdles, cooperating with regulators of religious affairs and working to end long-simmering conflicts and wars.

CVE experts and policymakers also need to accept the limitations of religious leaders who live in war zones and under authoritarian regimes. Dangerous conditions and lack of autonomy are undercutting lofty goals. We cannot demand that training workshops focus on best practices and countermessaging from religious leaders when their very survival is at stake.

(Qamar-ul Huda is director of the Security and Violent Extremism Program at the Center for Global Policy in Washington, D.C., and a former senior policy adviser in the Office of Religion and Global Affairs at the State Department. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily represent those of  Imams Online.)

Photo caption: Afghan men cry near the grave of a victim who died during a suicide attack at the Shiite Imam Zaman mosque that was claimed by the Islamic State group, in Kabul, Afghanistan, in October 2017. In a report released Nov. 7, 2017, the U.N. Assistance Mission in Afghanistan said there had been a sharp increase in attacks in Afghanistan targeting places of worship, religious leaders and worshippers, including attacks against Shiite Muslims. (AP Photo/Rahmat Gul)

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