Fighting Religious Extremism is Not Fighting Religion

By Sosamma Samuel-Burnett, J.D.
Founder & President, G.L.O.B.A.L Justice

Religious extremism is nothing new to our world. Many extremist individuals and groups have branched out from major religions in many regions. In recent decades the most notable of religious extremism arguably has been in the form of radical Islam. While radical Islamists are by no means the only religious extremists in our world today, they have been responsible for some of the widest scale terrorist acts of recent years and even recent days – particularly 9/11; attacks in Africa, Europe, and the MidEast; and most recently in San Bernadino. However, some people both within and outside Islam, take issue with associating this religion with this particular brand of extremism. They argue that the violence of groups like ISIS is not condoned by Muslims more broadly and thus should not be associated with Islam. I agree with this argument as much as I agree that as a Christian I wouldn’t want Christianity associated with extremists who pursue violence in the name of Christianity and do not actually reflect the religion. However, the reticence to identify a specific form of extremism because of a religious reference seems short-sighted in the broader effort to address the resulting violence and terrorism. What we need to recognize is that fighting religious extremism is not fighting religion.

Religious freedom is foundational to a free society. And protecting the free exercise of religion is imperative within our First Amendment. However, free exercise of religion does not mean that religious practice can offset other rights or protections under the law – in particular rights to life and liberty. When anyone pursues violence and terrorism in the name of any religion, they cross the line from religious free exercise to the realm of criminal activity – murder, treason, etc. And understanding the crime often means identifying and understanding the perpetrator and their motives. Certainly protecting religion and religious perspective is of utmost importance and we should not assume the religions of Islam, Christianity, etc. condone the violence of those who practice extremism. But avoiding the reference to a form of extremism based on (a valid or invalid) religious association means that we lose an important aspect of understanding terrorism and how to fight it.

While terrorism itself does not need to be rooted in religious extremism (consider the examples of the Zapatistas in Chiapas, Mexico or Sendero Luminoso in Peru), like violence, terrorism takes on many forms. The particular brand that we are generally facing globally is rooted in religious extremism. And, the major events we have experienced globally have been perpetuated by religious extremists (consider ISIS in the Mideast and Al-Shabbab in Africa). Just as with other violent acts, we need to identify and clarify the form for various reasons – to understand it, to address it, to prosecute it, and to prevent it.

Given the terrorist attacks in recent weeks, we have to pause to consider how effectively we are addressing this form of violence. And, more significantly, how are we addressing religious extremism to prevent the spread of this form of terrorism? We must identify the form; understand its purpose, ideology, and methodology; and create strategies and tactics to address this violence in its pursuit and aftermath.

The reality is that to fight terrorism, or extremism more generally, we have to be sophisticated and think outside of ourselves. While every form of terrorism may be violent, not every form of terrorism can be addressed in the same way. Fighting terrorism, and its underlying extremist ideology, is not simply about placing law enforcement and military to protect us. It’s about understanding a mindset that is radically different than our own, with an agenda radically separate from our own. How this form of violence develops and what underlies its pursuit and growth requires us to understand more than the actual acts of violence. In criminal activity, motive is important. And in terrorism motive is particularly important. We are not going to stop acts of wide scale terrorism, if we don’t first understand how it evolves and what its motivation is. Without a broader understanding of the forms of religious extremism, we cannot successfully curb any related terrorism. But that does not equate to curbing the religion or those who wish to disassociate the religion from extremism. Indeed, when we can clearly differentiate the extremism from the religion itself, we can more effectively protect not only the religion but the broader community from extremist violence.

The views and opinions expressed are those of the author(s) and do not imply endorsement by G.L.O.B.A.L. Justice. We are a faith-based, nonpartisan organization that seeks to extend the conversation about justice with a posture of dignity and respect.