By Robert P. George, Special to CNN
Editor’s note: Robert P. George is chairman of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF). The views expressed are his own.
A dozen years ago today, the 9/11 attacks brutally awakened the American people to the global reality of terrorism – of lethal groups like al Qaeda and the Taliban, which manipulate religion in violent pursuit of totalitarian aims.
In the ensuing years, the nation rightly focused on these groups, and especially on the regions of South Asia – including Afghanistan and Pakistan – and the Middle East.
Yet in many ways, an overlooked story of the past few years has been the disturbing rise of like-minded organizations elsewhere, particularly in Africa. As the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) has documented, the forces of violent religious extremism have gained footholds on the continent, terrorizing populations, violating fundamental rights including religious freedom, and posing a serious security threat to the region and potentially beyond.
In Nigeria, Africa’s largest nation, the longstanding sectarian violence between Muslims and Christians, which has claimed more than 14,000 lives since 1999, has been exacerbated by the rise of the Islamist extremist group Boko Haram in the northern provinces. According to USCIRF’s Religious Violence Project, Boko Haram has killed hundreds since January 2012 – including Christians, dissenting Muslim clerics, and politicians – and targeted churches, schools, government buildings, newspapers and banks. Its tactics include drive-by shootings, the use of IEDs, and suicide bombings.
In Somalia, the near-complete breakdown of central government authority led to the rise of al-Shabaab, an al Qaeda ally that controlled the country’s central and southern regions between 2008 and 2012. While it since has lost ground to a new central government, it continues to fight a guerrilla war in government-controlled towns and villages, while engaging in suicide attacks and other violence against neighboring Kenya.
Even in Mali, once a model for democracy and religious freedom in Africa, a coup against the government last year opened the door in the north to extremist groups such as al Qaeda in the Lands of the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), Ansar al-Din, and the Movement for the Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJWA). Only after French military intervention were they dislodged.
The question for the United States and its allies remains how best to counter such forces no matter where they appear. For years, the answer has been to employ a wide array of tools, from intelligence gathering to police work to military action. But if the fight is to succeed, it also must include efforts to promote freedom of religion or belief. This is a battle of ideas as much as brawn, and environments that promote freedom of thought and belief empower moderate ideas and voices to denounce extremist hatred and violence.
Central to this effort is understanding two things. First, extremist groups seek to capitalize on the fact that religion plays a critical role in the lives of billions. Nearly 84 percent of the world’s population has some religious affiliation. In many areas of the world, including the African continent, religion matters greatly.
Second, people across Africa (and elsewhere), Muslim and non-Muslim alike, are rejecting the hijacking of religion by these extremists. For some, this rejection has come from bitter personal experience. Wherever violent religious extremist groups have held sway, be it central Somalia or elsewhere, they have penetrated every nook and cranny of human endeavor, imposing their will on families and communities in horrific ways. In many instances, they have banned routine activities such as listening to music and watching television. They have crushed all forms of religious expression other than their own, even seeking to destroy historic Islamic religious sites. They have imposed barbaric punishments on dissenters, from floggings and stonings to beheadings and amputations.
As a result, especially in places where these forces operate, people want an alternative: They want the right to honor their own beliefs and act peacefully on them. And as a number of scholars in recent years have shown, societies where this right to religious freedom is recognized and protected are more peaceful, prosperous, and free of destabilizing terror.
Countries plagued by violent religious extremist forces have options which, while difficult, can be taken. In Somalia, a stronger central government can better stem the anarchy that triggers religious freedom violations, while its constitution also must protect freedom of religion for all, including minority voices. Other nations, like Nigeria, need a government that is more willing and able specifically to prosecute and punish the perpetrators of the sectarian violence, as well as groups like Boko Haram through a range of actions that includes, but is not limited to, the use of military force.
In other words, in a world where religion matters, a key answer to violent religious extremism in the post-9/11 era is for governments to act in such ways to affirm and protect freedom of religion. It is not only a moral imperative – it is a practical necessity, empowering people everywhere to choose a better way.