The Mutual Anathemas of Violent Jihadism and Religious Freedom

by vaughn_admin  //  

June 28, 2016

As the recent abductions by Nigeria’s Boko Haram and the surge of violence in Iraq have reminded us, non-state groups can threaten religious freedom and other basic human rights at least as much as governments. In this week’s conversation, we ask scholars to examine the significant trends in non-state threats to religious freedom and explore the most effective ways that governments and societies can respond.

By: William Inboden

The optimistic assertions of three years ago by some senior US government officials that Al-Qaeda was “on the ropes” and “on the path to defeat” have of late been subsumed by a more sober reality. Displaying a perverse resilience and ability to grow, Al-Qaeda has proliferated into multiple franchises, across multiple geographies, and into multiple permutations, including Al-Qaeda on the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), and the remaining elements of “core” Al-Qaeda under the leadership of Ayman al-Zawahiri. Other violent extremist groups have also emerged, such as Boko Haram in Nigeria, Al-Shabab in the Horn of Africa, and notably now in the headlines, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.

As diverse as these franchises are in geography and particular grievances, one common theme animating them is hostility to religious pluralism and religious freedom. Each one defines itself by its effort to impose a draconian form of Islamic law on its subjects, and to eradicate any dissenting or alternative religious voices. Religious pluralism and religious tolerance are not merely incidental annoyances, but rather are anathema to their very worldview. In a recent study, scholar Mary Habeck points out that a central goal of all of these extremist groups is to control territory and to impose their intolerant versions of sharia on all residents within that territory. 

The challenge for the United States and other nations opposed to violent jihadism is to understand and counter the perverse yet enduring appeal of its ideology. To be sure, this appeal is confined to a tiny fraction of Muslims, yet this tiny fraction that succumbs to radicalization can become a first-order threat, intent on visiting great violence on their enemies—defined variously as Christians, Jews, the West, and most often other Muslims who reject extremism (this latter point is especially important). Twenty-one years after the first attack on the World Trade Center in 1993, and now 13 years after the September 11 attacks, the free world still has not developed a robust and effective ideological response to violent jihadism. 

This is in part because the free world, and the United States Government in particular, continue to pay insufficient attention to religious freedom, either as a principle in its own right or as an important tool in counter-radicalization. Scholar and former senior National Security Council official Quintan Wictorowicz recently described, and decried, the gap between the Obama Administration’s rhetoric about countering violent extremism and the lack of budget resources devoted to it. (The Bush Administration experienced similar deficiencies). Nor has the Obama Administration made a priority of international religious freedom policy, exemplified by the fact that the position of Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom has been left vacant for more than half of the Obama presidency thus far. 

Why, specifically, can religious freedom help counter violent extremism? Because religious freedom cuts through the heart of the jihadist worldview. Violent jihadism by its nature and self-definition brooks no dissent and seeks to impose itself, by force if necessary, wherever it can. It thus makes violence obligatory against adherents of other faiths, and against Muslims who reject jihadist ideology. Where religious freedom can take root, both in legal institutions and in cultural affinities, violent jihadism cannot. Policymakers who are now coming to terms with the resurgence and proliferation of jihadist franchises would do well to incorporate religious freedom promotion into their long term policies—not as a luxury good but as an essential part of a robust counter-radicalization strategy. 

William Inboden is associate professor at the LBJ School of Public Affairs and executive director of the Clements Center for History, Strategy, and Statecraft at the University of Texas-Austin. 

This piece was originally authored on June 16, 2014 for the Religious Freedom Project at Georgetown’s Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs.