Interfaith as the Antidote to Extremism
Last Thursday, I was invited to give a talk at the Council on Foreign Relations on religion, extremism and foreign policy. We discussed the connections between religion, policy, diplomacy, conflict resolution, and the all-important and urgent issues of religion’s place in societies and democracies. Given the recent developments in the Middle East, it is particularly a question for emerging democracies, but it is also a matter of deep concern for some of the fragile states, and also for Europe and the United States, as international affairs and changing demographics make religion a central question if we’re seeking healthy and open societies. Around the table, everyone seemed to agree that in today’s interconnected world, religion matters. But people wanted to know—what do we do about it? How do we tackle religious extremism?
Though these are loaded and difficult questions, I have one simple point to make. We need to put understanding religion right at the core of intelligent foreign policy, and we need to put the theology back into our understanding of religion. Religion is not just a social or cultural phenomenon – though it is both of those things too. It is beliefs, sometimes ideologies, inspiration and motivating forces. It is many things sacred and unknowable and unquestionably powerful. And if we don’t understand the theological underpinnings of those motivating forces – and yes, the theological misunderstandings and misrepresentations from many of those who preach or practice religion too –otherwise well-thought out and carefully planned diplomatic missions will fail.
Violent religious extremism is catastrophic, but thankfully still rare. Prejudice against people of a different religion is a problem of, I’d say, medium occurrence. And misunderstanding and ignorance of other religions is really rather rife. Now they’re different in nature as well as in degree, but they are connected. Violent religious extremists take advantage of and recruit from populations in which the narrative of grievance and grudge has resonance. And we fail to anticipate or deal with it well enough because we misunderstand and are ignorant of the religious roots and motivations of those we don’t know and worry about.
We need to recognise that extremism is not just a bad thing in itself, but has multiple consequences, one of which is and the proliferation of identity politics, sometimes from secularists or far-right nationalists who define themselves less by adherence to a religion than by their opposition to a religion, which can have dire results.
The stakes are high. Faith communities as competing and politicised religious tribes, as Lebanon and the north of Ireland have illustrated, are a recipe for violent social conflict. Trust can drain so easily from the public sphere leaving everyone occupying their own ethnic or religious sub-sphere, fearful and resentful, attempting to wield power one over the other, until there is no genuine public space at all. This is a recipe for state failure.
In this context, I believe interfaith can be the antidote to extremism. The narrative of most extremists is that “they disrespect you”. If that claim gains common ground, fighting the narrative can be hard, even amongst those who reject the violent conclusions of it. So a genuine and open process of learning about the other, and trying to find ways to undertake respectful dialogue and negotiation, even where there will always be irreconcilable theological or cultural differences, can undercut that superficially appealing extremist line.
So having started this journey with slight reluctance, I am by now an absolute convert to the need to have lively and effective interfaith work at the heart of a successful foreign policy. It’s not woolly, it’s essential. It’s not marginal, it’s core. But there are simply not enough serious and senior actors engaged in it. Whilst religious extremists are small in number, they are well organised, highly motivated, well funded, and they have devastating and dramatic impact. By contrast, the interfaith scene is by no means well enough led, organised, funded or impactful. It needs to be. And it needs your interest and your involvement to be so.
It is this, which in the end, will be our most effective counter extremism policy – and a goal worth striving for.