What role can religious leadership play in confronting extremism?

Political systems have 2 essential components: who exercises power and the value framework within which that power is exercised.   In most cases, it is religion or the religious heritage of the politicians that provides the value systems by which power is exercised, or at least justified.

In systems that are primarily political, the pragmatism required to work with others with different outlooks and values can often be achieved. In systems that are led by religious leaders, decisions made for pragmatic reasons are difficult because they can be seen as a weakness of faith. Such systems often lead to extremist offshoots.

Moreover, scholars who have studied extremism have postulated that people develop extremist interpretations of religion when they experience social and political crises. In such circumstances, social and political grievances are interpreted as threats to the identity and values of believers, and religion is reinterpreted to confront those perceived as responsible for the threat.

In so doing, religious extremist ideologies primarily serve two purposes: they mobilize followers around their religious identity against the perceived threat, and they provide an ethical justification for violence and control over others.

So, what can religious leaders do to confront extremism? Firstly, they must maintain a separation from power. But they should influence positively the debate on the values by which power is exercised. In particular, the values universal to all major religions of peace through the exercise of absolute justice, beneficence and altruistic love.

We are today being asked to offer policies that might be effective in countering extremism. Many policies are needed. Indeed, many already exist. But if these policies do not directly link to the religious principles I have mentioned then they risk being ineffective.

For example, we have a bizarre situation now where, in order to be liberated from the oppression of dictators, many times more innocents die during and following liberation than if the oppression of the dictator continued.

Absolute justice requires that all people are equal before the law. That is not just within a country but also between countries. At home we only grant power to police and other forces who can be controlled. Why then do we encourage, arm and support groups in other countries? Indeed most of the prominent extremist groups have benefitted from either direct or indirect foreign state support to develop their reigns of terror.

So while religious leaders should continue to progress interfaith dialogue, encourage critical and accurate study of their scriptures, they should also focus on understanding that it is both local and global social and political crises that lead to extremism. They should advise and guide political leaders on how to work towards, peace through universal justice, beneficence and altruistic love. It requires that the structures of international law and cooperation, imperfect as they may be, are upheld and strengthened rather than being ignored and weakened.

Dr. Afzal Ashraf

Author: Dr. Afzal Ashraf

Consultant Fellow at the Royal United Studies Institute, United Kingdom

Dr. Afzal Ashraf was a senior officer in the Royal Air Force and worked as a counterterrorism and counterinsurgency strategist for the US commanding general and US ambassador in Iraq. He was head of the political military section in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. He is a regular commentator on international affairs relating to terrorism and radicalisation on numerous media outlets.

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