RFI President Tom Farr: “Preventing Another Attack: International Religious Freedom”

September 10, 2021

As the 20th anniversary of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 approaches, the Religious Freedom Institute (RFI) is looking back on the lessons American elected officials, diplomats, military leaders, national security experts, and religious freedom proponents have learned, and should continue to learn, from what led up to that horrific day and its aftermath. We focus attention, in particular, on the many religious factors surrounding 9/11. This is the fourth article published in this series. In it, we point back to an article RFI President Tom Farr authored 10 years ago for Public Discourse in which he argued that the advancement of international religious freedom is crucial to defeat terrorism. 


RFI President Tom Farr, in a piece published in Public Discourse around the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, argued that the advancement of international religious freedom is crucial for defeating terrorism and preventing similar attacks.

Farr begins:

What if Osama Bin Laden had been raised in a Saudi Arabia that allowed for religious freedom? What if, instead of being steeped exclusively in the toxic teachings of Wahhabism and Sayyid Qutb, he had been exposed to other forms of Islam, to critics of Islam, to other forms of religious belief, and to liberal religion-based arguments about justice and the common good?

Would 9/11 have happened?

There are good reasons to believe that the answer is “no.” Religious freedom, the evidence shows, can be an antidote to religion-related extremism, including terrorism. 

Farr goes on to cite the work of empirical sociologists Brian Grim and Roger Finke, who have demonstrated a causal connection between the absence of religious freedom and the incubation of religiously motivated terrorism, explaining:

Where there is a closed religious orthodoxy, as in Saudi Arabia or Pakistan, extremist ideas flourish. But the reverse appears to be true as well: When all religious actors and ideas enjoy equal access to public life, including democratic political life, liberal political theologies emerge and the appeal of extremism diminishes.

Grim and Finke claim that while electoral democracy can help undermine extremism and encourage liberalism, elections alone are not enough; religious liberty is needed to help democracy take root and undermine terrorism. 

Farr explores the connection, explaining that the exclusion of religious actors from politics can encourage a turn to violence and extremism. Some religious individuals and groups, seeing no outlet for their ideas and objectives in the democratic public square, (and perhaps already inclined toward violence because of their political theologies), can become fiercely anti-democratic and all the more radical. By contrast, he says,

… the active involvement of religious actors in democratic politics can undermine the extremist tendencies already present in their political theologies, and can encourage them to adopt more liberal policies.

In other words, political theologies are more likely to embrace means of persuasion and to condemn terrorism and other forms of extremism when they have the opportunity, and the obligation, to compete in a marketplace of religious ideas. Farr writes: 

If religious leaders are required to defend their teachings—for example, their views on the meaning of justice, freedom, equality, and the common good—against competing conceptions (religious or not), their teachings are less likely to remain extremist.

Given the powerful evidence  that religious freedom can contribute to de-radicalization, Farr contends that American foreign policy should be integrating international religious freedom into its governance strategies for the broader Middle East. 

Unfortunately, 10 years later, and now as the 20th anniversary of 9/11 approaches, it appears that the United States still needs to take this evidence to heart. 

Read the full articlePreventing Another Attack: International Religious Freedom.