Fight terrorism with religious freedom
September 11th, 2013
09:30 AM ET

Fight terrorism with religious freedom

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.

More from CNN: Battle of youth key to beating Boko Haram

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.

More from GPS: Why god doesn't go away

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.

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soundoff (20 Responses)
  1. Josh

    Islam's foundation rests on violence. Violence and Islam can not be separated.

    September 11, 2013 at 10:14 am |
    • Michael

      No more so than Christianity. How many have died in the name of Christ? The root cause is the extremist, regardless the religion. Tolerance and understanding are the hallmarks of almost all religions yet those aspects are the least practiced.

      September 11, 2013 at 1:24 pm |
      • Greenwavenow

        I am an extremist Christian, meaning that I take Jesus suffering and sacrifice on the cross to pay the price for my sin and his command to love my neighbour (ie: everyone) as myself extremely seriously. An extremist Muslim, however;...well you do the research.

        September 11, 2013 at 3:32 pm |
      • drjeffreyp

        Much more so than Christianity. The history is clear.

        September 12, 2013 at 11:28 am |
    • TiredOfPaying

      Islam needs to undergo a Reformation. If it does not, it is on a collision course with the rest of the world. I ferverently hope that collision results in the death of the religion of Islam. Nothing has, or ever will, cause as much death and destruction as Islam.

      September 16, 2013 at 2:21 pm |
  2. John Smith

    America is the root of all terror. America has invaded sixty countries since world war 2.
    In 1953 America overthrow Iran's democratic government Mohammad Mosaddegh and installed a brutal dictator Shah. America helped Shah of Iran to establish secret police and killed thousands of Iranian people.
    During Iran-Iraq war evil America supported Suddam Hossain and killed millions of Iranian people. In 1989, America, is the only country ever, shot down Iran's civilian air plane, killing 290 people.
    In 2003,America invaded Iraq and killed 1,000,000+ innocent Iraqi people and 4,000,000+ Iraqi people were displaced.
    Now America is a failed state with huge debt. Its debt will be 22 trillion by 2015.

    September 11, 2013 at 12:35 pm |
  3. dragonfire0477

    Your right to practice your religion ends where it interferes with my right to practice mine.
    You wanna preach at me? Go ahead, I have a perfect right to NOT listen to you.
    You wanna make a law regulating my behaviors because it's against your religion....THAT'S where we're gonna have a problem.

    September 11, 2013 at 12:42 pm |
  4. Michael

    It is my opinion that, contrary to what is claimed by the religios fanatics, religion has acted primarily as a method of controlling the masses, by instilling fear (witness beheadings and other atrocities) and intolerance for anyone that thinks or feels differently. While religious freedom is a step, total freedom is the goal. Freedom from fear, from want, from any form of persecution. Even the US isn't there yet.

    September 11, 2013 at 1:23 pm |
  5. rightospeak

    Terrorism is a means to enslave people. Anything goes. All you have to say is that if we take freedoms away from you, you will be protected. The terrorists are few, but the government's terrorism with the media's propaganda is what I personally fear the most.

    September 11, 2013 at 4:39 pm |
    • Patricia

      Religion is a means to enslave people also – witness the indoctrination of youth, even babies.

      September 11, 2013 at 6:08 pm |
  6. Patricia

    Fundamentalism = extremism = evil; which religion it is really does not matter.

    September 11, 2013 at 6:06 pm |
    • DustyOnes

      Secularism is the true leads to complete devaluation of human life.

      September 11, 2013 at 6:13 pm |
      • TiredOfPaying

        Secularism is the only answer. A religious government stamps out all opposing views, expecially Islamic governments. You obviously hope to be on the side of the religion that wins, but what if you're not?

        September 16, 2013 at 2:25 pm |
      • crjcurrie

        Does anyone remember remember Stalin, Hitler, Mao, Pol Pot? Secularist governments have done more killing in a century than all the religions combined since the world began. We Americans ignore history and it leads to stupidity.

        September 17, 2013 at 8:33 am |
  7. Jim

    Help Save Christian America.
    Save our Values.

    saveusa (dot) us

    September 18, 2013 at 6:39 pm |
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