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Report September 21, 2016

Middle East Strategy Task Force: Religion, identity, and countering violent extremism

By Geneive Abdo and Nathan Brown

In recent decades, Muslims have been debating political and social aspects of their religious teachings in new ways. The religious debates are connected to and sometimes stem in considerable part from underlying political and social trends—demographic shifts; rising education; unaccountable and authoritarian governance; stuttering economic and governmental performance; and corruption. They cannot, however, be wholly reduced to those trends. Religion is not an isolated field, but neither is it simply a mask for other struggles; the terms and outcomes of religious debates matter in their own right.

It is precisely for that reason that the debates are receiving increasing attention not merely from those involved in them but also from non-Muslims in various policy communities. In particular, there is escalating alarm in security-oriented circles that radical individuals and movements, making their arguments in Islamic terms, are threatening global and regional security through terrorism, revolutionary activity, and other forms of political violence.

This report seeks to explain why these debates are occurring. However, in seeking to explore and explain the debates, it does not suggest that Western states try to intervene directly. The outcomes of religious debates matter; nonetheless, Western governments should not be parties to those debates. They can, at best, encourage their partners in the region to move in directions that allow those debates to take peaceful forms.

If religious extremism is to be curtailed, states in the region have an important role to play. Middle East regional governments have a responsibility to prevent the export of religious and sectarian violence. States also have every right to protect their citizens from the scourge of terrorism—in fact, it is their sovereign duty—but they should do so in ways that strengthen the rule of law, and by extension their own legitimacy, rather than undermining it. Short-term measures, such as clamping down on opposition forces, policing religious space, and persuading senior religious officials to endorse official policy, often backfire in the long term.

There are periodic calls for Western governments to find the right religious actors to engage and support. Sometimes specific religious figures or regimes are held up as positive models that Western policy should support. The authors argue against such an approach. On the contrary, Western governments should avoid getting trapped in terminology that suggests there is an essential religious or civilizational conflict. The religious issues are critical to understand, but they are not ones that Western governments have the tools to address directly. The attempt to find the right religious actors to “engage” (with “engagement” often a euphemism for support) is likely to draw Western governments not only into religious controversies where they have no role but also into partisan political struggles they do not fully understand.

A positive neutrality toward religion should not lead to ignorance. A more sophisticated understanding of religious issues is required to inform more productive political and security approaches and should thus be encouraged. However, it should not be seen as a step toward endorsing any particular theological, jurisprudential, or religious position, or toward selecting particular actors to carry and promote a message that is aligned with the foreign policy and security priorities of the moment. While not denying the connection between security concerns and Islamic religious debates, the authors aim to show that a focus strictly on a perceived nexus between religion and terrorism, and strategy by non-Muslims to intervene in religious debates in order to combat terrorism, would be facile and ineffective.