Peter Mandaville, professor of international affairs at George Mason University’s Schar School of Policy and Government, and Melissa Nozell, senior program specialist for religion and inclusive societies at the United States Institute of Peace, discuss the role of religion and religious communities in countering violent extremism, as part of CFR’s Religion and Foreign Policy Conference Call series.
FASKIANOS: Good afternoon from New York and welcome to the Council on Foreign Relations Religion and Foreign Policy Conference Call Series. I’m Irina Faskianos, vice president for the national program and outreach here at CFR. As a reminder, today’s call is on the record and the audio and transcript will be available on our website, CFR.org, and on our iTunes podcast channel, Religion and Foreign Policy.
We’re delighted to have Peter Mandaville and Melissa Nozell with us to talk about the role of religious communities in countering violent extremism. Peter Mandaville is a professor of international affairs at the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University. From 2015 to 2016, he served as senior advisor in the Office of Religion and Global Affairs at the State Department, where he led that office’s work on sectarian conflicts in the Middle East. Prior to that, he was a nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, and a visiting senior fellow at the Pew Research Center. He also served as a member of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s policy planning staff, where he helped to shape the U.S. response to the Arab uprisings. He is the author of Islam and Politics and Transnational Muslim Politics, and has testified multiple times before Congress on political Islam and human rights in the Middle East.
Melissa Nozell is a senior program specialist for religion and inclusive societies at the United States Institute of Peace. Prior to joining USIP in August 2014, she spent seven months in Jordan working with several relief organizations, including NuDay Syria and Mercy Corps, to help Syrian refugees through humanitarian aid efforts and mediation. She has conducted research on religious trends in the Middle East at the Jordanian Interfaith Coexistence Research Center, where she focused on faith-based diplomacy and Christian-Muslim relation in the Arab world. She has also conducted research with the Pluralism Project at Harvard, where she did several reports for the online resource On Common Ground: World Religions in America.
Peter, Melissa, thank you very much for being with us today. We circulated your August 2017 report about engaging religion and religious communities in countering violent extremism in advance of this call. It would be great if you could walk us through that report, as well as your policy recommendations. I think we’ll start with you, Melissa, and then we’ll turn to Peter.
NOZELL: Sure. Thank you.
So this report really spun out of a long conversation over the course of several years that we’ve been having at USIP on our religion team here about ways in which the religious sector is involved in, contributes to, prevents violent extremism. It’s a conversation that’s been happening in D.C. and the foreign policy arena for a while. And at USIP, we’ve been building off of really 20 years of experience working in the religion and peacebuilding space. And we’ve been trying to look more critically then at how using religion and peacebuilding as a lens within the CVE arena can help us to better understand some of the drivers, some of the factors around the role of religious actors in CVE.
So this report then built upon about three years of work that USIP has been having directly in convening and learning from religious actors and their role to counter violent extremism through a series of symposia that we hosted, both in D.C. and in the field, and really from a lot of listening that we’ve been doing on the ground. Some of what we’ve been hearing from our partners who work to build peace in the field and who are really on the front lines in countering violent extremism have included ways in which we can be more sensitively engaging and supporting the work that they do every day, and their engagement with the security sector, with their government.
There are certain specific issues that have come up—for example, mistrust. In Mombasa, for example, there is a network of imams in the coastal region of Kenya who’s been really working with the security sector to try and better understand some of the drivers, some of their recruitment strategies that have been motivating members of the community to be joining Al-Shabaab and what’s been making them especially vulnerable. And at the same time, as religious leaders, they’ve been put in a delicate position where they themselves are being asked by the government, by the security officials, to be speaking out. And the head of this organization, this network if imams in the coastal region, was actually himself targeted. As a result, security is very real. And the religious leaders then feel that they don’t have the support that is required to help them better work together with the government to be more united in this common effort.
So that’s just one example. We’ve heard from the religious actors that they don’t want to be instrumentalized, which understandably makes sense. That that fosters the mistrust, when they feel like they’re being utilized and it’s not done carefully. They want to be included from the beginning in conversations that those who are working with them are partnering more carefully. And so these are some of the issues, just to highlight a few that really helped encourage where we wanted to go with this report, some of the information that we’ve been hearing and has led to what we want to consolidate into a special report that could then look bigger—a bit more broadly at some of the wider conversations that have been happening, not only at USIP but globally on this very important issue.
So the intent of the report being to offer more practical guidelines for how governments can be engaging their religious sector in efforts to counter violent extremism and to offer some best practices, from what we’ve been hearing, both from religious actors and from the governments, based on what works, what doesn’t work. So with that, I will turn it to Peter.
MANDAVILLE: Great. Thanks very much, Melissa. And thank you, Irina, for bringing us all together.
You know, I really welcomed the opportunity to partner with USIP on this report, to build on the really unique data and information that they gathered through the unparalleled networks of contacts that they have all around the world, and to kind of see what sorts of patterns we might be able to identify and, from that, what sorts of analysis and recommendations we might be able to offer to various actors involved in CVE, countering violent extremism and preventing violent extremism-type activities.
So what I want to do in the kind of few minutes of remarks that I have prepared is to kind of talk about a couple of the broad analytical insights that come out of our work with respect to the big picture of religion and CVE, and then to address some of the recommendations that we make in the report.
You know, it’s been our observation that almost everyone involved in CVE or PVE-type activities tends to operate with the assumption that religion is part of the picture in some way. But it’s also our observation that the conversation often gets caught in a fairly crude and polarizing debate about whether religion or religious ideology is the main contributing factor to violent extremism, or whether, you know, more structural issues like politics, economics, localized conflict, you know, is really the main causal dimension of all of this. And therefore, you know, religion being viewed simply as an epiphenomenal aspect of it.
And, you know, we’re sort of dissatisfied with either of the two poles of that debate, and so wanted to try and kind of cut through that by taking a rather different approach to thinking about where religion fits into this, both as a contributing factor and then, you know, based on that analysis, also different ways of thinking about where religion might fit into the solution.
So, you know, our first kind of broad analytical insight relates to the idea that perhaps rather than asking whether religion or religious ideology is present in a sort of dichotomous on/off sort of way, or rather than trying to measure how much religious ideology is part of a given instance of violent extremism, it makes more sense to ask questions about what sort of role of function religion is playing in a given manifestation of violent extremism.
So, for example, if religion is primarily playing a role of providing social bonds or building solidarity between actors, that’s a rather different kind of role for religion than a situation where religion is being used as a sort of ethical warrant, or a sort of justification for forms of behavior that would otherwise be, you know, considered kind of beyond the pale. And so then based on what kind of analysis we’ve made of the role that religion is playing, that then leads us to think in different ways about what sorts of role religion might play as part of the solution.
So broadly speaking, we have kind of four recommendations that we make. These are, I think it’s fair to say, aimed broadly at both, yes, governments and policy makers, but many of them, I’d say, apply equally to practitioners of civil society work in civil society more broadly. So the kind of the first point that we’d make is to urge practitioners of CVE and PVE, when considering potential roles for religious actors to, as we style it, think beyond theology.
And the idea here is that, you know, we found that often the default assumption is that when people are considering bringing religious leaders, religious actors into CVE work, the idea is that the role for religious leaders is to provide something like theological antidotes to bad or incorrect interpretations of religion. You know, somehow you can have a more positive and constructive interpretation of religion that will somehow negate or offset, you know, problematic or distorted conceptions of religion.
And we find that for any number of reasons, that’s a difficult and tall order to kind of place on the shoulders of religious leaders. Now, you know, we can kind of get into the course of discussion, you know, talk in more detail about why that is, but what we would suggest, however, is that, you know, those who want to figure out interesting ways and creative ways to incorporate and integrate religious actors into CVE work should recognize the broader societal role that religious leaders play beyond spaces that are kind of conventionally demarcated as spaces of religion.
So, for example, if you’re working on a governance program that has a CVE-relevant dimension to it, that focuses on, for example, corruption, there is a role for religious leaders on programs that are focused on reducing corruption. Likewise, in those instances where socioeconomic deprivation has been identified as a major contributing factor to violent extremism, there’s a role for religious leaders on those kinds of programs as well. So think beyond the kind of conventional spaces that we associate with religion.
Our second recommendation is also another think beyond recommendation. And here, it’s the idea that—you know, to kind of—to put it in short-hand terms, we need to think beyond old men in churches and mosques, right? There’s a habit I think we’ve picked up whereby we tend to gravitate towards those figures that hold certain kinds of titles and are placed in certain positions within formalized hierarchies of religious authority. It’s our experience that those figures are not always the most relevant, credible, or influential voices to engage or to partner with.
And so we would urge practitioners of CVE and PVE, when they want to engage religion and religious actors, to think about, for example, the crucially important role that women often play as thought leaders, producers of religious knowledge, shapers of religious understanding within many societies and communities around the world, even if they’re not necessarily always the people who hold the religious titles. Likewise, we—you know, we need to think about younger religious leaders in the same way, particularly given that much of the work in the CVE and PVE space focuses on the younger demographics within particular communities and societies.
Another recommendation we have—and this one does kind of get more specifically at government—is the need for governments to avoid endorsing specific interpretations of religion, or avoid governments, let’s say, undue entanglement with religion, to avoid getting bogged down in debates that have very specific theological meanings and connotations, particularly when governments—certainly governments such as that of the United States—are not regarded as having any standing or any legitimacy to take positions on matters of religion. And obviously, of course, in the case of the United States, there’s potential legal jeopardy associated with the U.S. government taking positions—specific positions on actual religious interpretations.
There’s a kind of corollary point here that I think is worth bearing in mind, which involves the need to recognize the limitations associated with certain kinds of religious institutions in other countries, particularly religious institutions that have a strong connection to or association with the government, or religious institutions that come under the supervision of the government—many of which tend to be regarded by communities and societies in those regions as primarily mouthpieces of government policy and so aren’t necessarily always able to serve as the credible voices that we might want them to be.
The kind of final recommendation that we would make—and, again, this is one probably aimed at governments, because we think governments have the highest capacity to kind of do something with it—which is to warn against the risk of countering violent extremism, preventing violent extremism becoming a form of top-cover for governments in various regions of the world engaging in activities that are really, at their core, violations of human rights.
So let’s not let CVE, you know, become a pretense for allowing governments to increase authoritarian tendencies, to bring ever more walks of life under their surveillance and regulations, including, for example, efforts to promote and ensure religious freedom. We think that there’s a sense in which religious freedom itself is potentially at risk from a lot of CVE activity.
So those are some of the recommendations that kind of come out of the work that USIP has done in its engagement around the world. And, you know, integrated into all of that is, you know, some of the experience I have and was involved in, you know, while working in the previous administration on the interface between religion and CVE.
So thanks again, Irina, for the opportunity. And very much looking forward to the discussion to follow.
FASKIANOS: Wonderful. Thank you both for that overview. And let’s go now to questions and comments from the group.
OPERATOR: At this time we will open the floor for questions.
OK, our first question comes from Azza Karam with the United Nations Population Fund.
KARAM: Thank you very much. I hope you can hear me.
I just wanted to say a couple things. Firstly, to thank Peter and the team at CFR for putting this together, and for the brilliant article that was shared, and on which this presentation was predicated. It has been a thing that we’re actually using internally within the U.N. system to enlighten ourselves. And we find that the recommendations are incredibly well-targeted and helpful.
One of the specific recommendations that I wanted to pick up on is the potential danger that freedom of religion efforts can face with CVE activities. And I wanted to say it takes a particular amount of courage to actually identify that, and to give thanks for that. I also wanted to share that there’s a particular perception of mediation and peacebuilding and working with violent extremism that seems to assume that we’re going to pluck very specialized religious experts who will then serve as either mediators or those who we would work with to counter violent extremism. And I think it’s important to realize that there’s a continuum of activity that begins with social service provision that religious actors perform. And it is quintessentially within this continuum of social service provision that we do find some very critical interlocutors in PVE, preventing violent extremism, and CVE efforts.
And just to highlight that point, which I think came out implicitly in the presentation but I think is incredibly important for us working as intergovernmental actors, to be able to identify from amongst our existing faith-based partners whom—with whom we work on social service provisions and general advocacy on public health, on education, and so on—that some of those can be very critical interlocutors in the work for countering violent extremism.
And the other point I wanted to make is that I think it’s incredibly important to be aware of the fact that identifying the women of faith, and the young faith leaders within communities, as Peter highlighted, remains a very critical set of engagements. And it’s very valuable for us to realize that there are recommendations to governments that are important to bear in mind, but at the end of the day some of the most critical work that can take place within the CVE arena needs to involve multilateral actors. And I would—I would make a case for that going forward, that we not only look at one government’s efforts, that we—in some cases many governments working together, so an intergovernmental mechanism, can be far better interlocutors in the CVE arena than just one government’s efforts. Thank you.
FASKIANOS: Thank you, Azza. That’s great feedback on the report. Peter, Melissa, do you want to add anything to that, or respond?
MANDAVILLE: Not really, no. Just really to thank Azza for the fantastic work that she and those who work with her on the United Nations Interagency Taskforce on Religion and Development are doing. And she’s absolutely right that, you know, we could have been a little bit more explicit, you know, when talking about the idea that there’s a role for religious leaders beyond theology, that there’s an entire domain of work on the interface of religion and development that is crucially important here. And so, you know, the whole conversation about where religion fits into the U.N.’s 2030 framework, the Sustainable Development Goals, is an important part of this. Not just within SDG 16, that most explicitly references the kind of issues that we conventionally associate with CVE, PVE, but the entire framework itself, you know, bears on the kind of trajectory and arc of how we address this set of issues globally.
FASKIANOS: All right. Thank you. Next question or comment.
OPERATOR: Our next question comes from Elise Goss-Alexander with the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom.
GOSS-ALEXANDER: Hi, Peter and Melissa. Thank you very much for your interesting comments and for the report, which is—which is great.
I wanted to pick up on what Azza mentioned and what Peter had mentioned at the very end of his comments, about the ways in which CVE efforts and counterterrorism efforts can sometimes bleed into human rights violations. And I was wondering if you could speak a little bit more about that, and the ways that when governments are working with religious leaders both parties to those ongoing talks can sort of work to keep that from happening or, if it has already happened, the ways that they can sort of disentangle the two. Thank you.
MANDAVILLE: Sure. Thanks, Elise, for the question.
As you know, this is very tricky and sensitive kinds of conversations to have. Many of the countries that, at least in my assessment, are, you know, the worst offenders, as it were, are countries that the United States, for example, has very sensitive forms of security cooperation and very important alliances with on other areas. So there are important diplomatic and security equities that we kind of want to preserve. You know, and so I think that there have been issues of this sort with respect to countries like Egypt, Kazakhstan, other countries in Central Asia, the Philippines, elsewhere.
And so I think that the best and most effective way to have conversations about this dimension of the issue is to kind of focus on the security implications for those countries of taking a particular approach to countering violent extremism, where the kind of closing down of civic space, the repression of certain facets of life, I think carries with it significant risks with respect to medium- to longer-term problems with respect to the ability of violent extremist groups to recruit. And so I think it’s partly about, you know, having a conversation with those countries. And sometimes that conversation might occur most effectively through, you know, military and security cooperation channels, about the risks of blowback and instability within the country in question to taking the kind of approach that they are.
I don’t know, Melissa, did you want to add anything to that?
NOZELL: I don’t think so. Thank you.
FASKIANOS: Great. Thank you. Next question.
OPERATOR: Our next question comes from Jack Moline with Interfaith Alliance.
MOLINE: Hi. Good afternoon. And, Peter and Melissa, thank you both for being with us.
I’d just preface my comment with a small statement about what we do, which is to try to protect the communities that are often targeted by government CVE activities, because we find that too often that that is a—it’s an excuse for religious persecution. So I just want to make that clear, because what I’m about to ask is going to sound other.
Peter, your caution against misusing religious leaders or only a slice of religious leadership in CVE and PVE activities makes it sound to me like the people we are countering and preventing are not authentically religious communities, which is what we hear all the time from people who are on the opposite side of these issues from us. We are not countering a religious philosophy or a theology here. This is an army of antagonistic terrorists and warriors who need to be addressed with the strongest possible efforts that we can muster as, quote-unquote, “civilization.” Can you clear this up for me?
MANDAVILLE: Sure. I can try. This is—you know, we’re—this is the kind of area that turns into a tangled web of thorns very quickly and very rapidly. I think one of the kind of overarching questions here is the question of who is the “we” in question, right? If I’m thinking of the point of view of a U.S. policymaker who has, of course, first and foremost, the national security interests of the United States in mind, the priority is to kind of figure out how to most effectively interfere with processes of recruitment into violent extremist movements, and how best to go about closing down the ability that those groups have to operate.
Now, is engaging religious actors part and parcel of that? It perhaps is. I think the point we’re trying to make is that we don’t feel that the most effective way to do that, if you’re the U.S. government, is to try and amplify those—the voices of religious leaders who are seeking to put out messages and interpretations of religion that discredit interpretations of religion being circulated by those that we—you know, we have identified as the violent extremist groups. Not least of all because, you know, efforts on the part of the U.S. government to amplify them, to fund them, to lift them up—I think the single most likely effect of that is to actually discredit their message in the eyes of their potential audiences.
In our experience, some of the most effective religious leaders that are doing that kind of work on the ground that I’ve previous characterized as kind of generating theological antidotes are people who want to keep miles and miles away from governments, particularly Western governments, and who are working often at the local level in using vocabularies and idioms and references that are quite particular to their own communities. You know, so—you know, what I see as a risk is us getting involved in activities that actually have the potential to be effective, but where our direct participation actually carries some risk of reducing that effectiveness.
And so what I would rather see—and this kind of relates to the previous question about concerns about how the authoritarian tendencies of certain governments can carry risks for religious freedom. You know, sometimes what I’d like to see Western governments do is not so much figure out who the credible religious voices are, and lift them up and fund them, but rather use the diplomatic leverage that we have to make greater space for those voices to be heard without us having to directly partner with them.
MOLINE: Thank you.
FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.
OPERATOR: Our next question comes from John Pawlikowski with Catholic Theological Union.
PAWLIKOWSKI: Yes. Good afternoon and thank you for this very important presentation.
I have just several comments on a number of the points that, Peter, you made especially in your remarks. First of all, I do believe that we have to—in calculating religious leadership, we have to move beyond simply institutional representatives. And I know this is a tricky thing. During the Obama administration, from the Catholic side, a group of so-called progressive Catholics were sometimes invited. And the Obama administration took some criticism from the institutional leadership of the American Catholic Church for doing this. But I think it’s absolutely essential. Many religions, and I can certainly say this is true of Catholic Christianity, are moving in new directions in terms of religious leadership, with a greater emphasis on women, greater emphasis on lay people, and so on. And I think that has to be recognized in a discussion such as this.
I believe also that, you know, your point about governments being overly identified with one particular version of religion or one particular group within a religious tradition, the kind of role that the Evangelical Christians play in the present administration, is certainly an example of that. But you could multiply those examples. But I think that governments have to try to bring into the conversation a variety of representatives within particular religious traditions. I also think that the point about working in a more interreligious framework is a very important one. Interreligious relations is a core element of global society now. And I think we need to recognize that. And I think it does strengthen.
I think ultimately religion cannot really be a positive force in society unless it moves from a priority simply on certain belief systems to a recognition that human rights is a core element of any religious self-identification today. And finally, I would say I think religion could contribute something to public society by way of rituals. As one who has extensively studied the Nazi Holocaust, I certainly know how effective the Nazi public rituals were in terms of society. And I think we have seen some examples of that in recent years. For example, right after 9/11, when groups—non-Muslim religious groups had representatives surround mosques, for fear of violence, as a public witness—the kind of public witness that many number of Catholic bishops provided along the wall between Mexico and the United States by celebrating a mass along that wall, and for which they were criticized severely in certain sectors of conservative Catholicism.
But these are just some of the, I think, dimensions. And I’m glad you brought some of these out. If you have any comments, I’d appreciate hearing them. Thank you.
NOZELL: Sure. Thank you, John.
So a couple specific examples that I wanted to highlight that your comments brought to mind. One is a project that USIP has been involved in, the Women Preventing Extremist Violence Project in Nigeria and in Kenya, where we have worked with women, oftentimes religious women, including pastors and Muslim religious actors, where they really serve as intermediators between the security sector and members of civil society to help them better understand each other and their needs, as relates to some of the violence in their communities.
Your comments on ritual, one thought that came to mind is in terms of reintegration. And when those who have left to join an extremist group return, there are important ways that they can then, once they’ve decided to join their communities again, that they can be better reintegrated into their communities and with their families. And their religious community has a huge role to play there in terms of sense of belonging and ways in which they can, through worship, through practice, then be included back in that space.
FASKIANOS: Thank you for that.
NOZELL: Peter, do you have anything to add?
MANDAVILLE: No. No, I’m good. Thank you.
FASKIANOS: Great. Next question.
OPERATOR: Our next question comes from Soraya Deen with Muslim Women Speakers Movement.
DEEN: OK. Thank you so much.
This topic is so near and dear to me. I work also with the Omnia Institute for Contextual Leadership. And this year alone we have gone to Nigeria three times. And one of the highlights of our trip is having a women’s conference to counter violent extremism. And from what you mentioned, Peter, I can’t stress enough the need to return to female scholarship, particularly for Muslim women. And the challenge also is that the minute you want to reinterpret and give new meaning, the—any effort is crippled by accusations of blasphemy and—so that is an inherent challenge that we face within the community. And I—from Nigeria, I went to London. And I saw the same habit and pattern.
So what I am trying to—what I hold as very vital that we need to do, and I want to hear from you whether you think so too—and in your second recommendation you said: Think beyond old men from churches and mosques and then, you know, bring in women thought leaders. I think it’s really critical for civil society, for government and religious actors, to recognize and to promote women’s scholarship and leadership, and to really acknowledge the fact that women—Muslim women particularly—have an agency to interpret their situation. Thank you.
MANDAVILLE: Soraya, thank you so much.
You know, I do really strongly, you know, agree with what you’re saying here, and the need to recognize and find ways of incorporating and integrating into our discussions about these issues, but also some of our more structural and programmatic efforts to address these issues the vitally important voices of women. Just one—but also to kind of sound one note of caution, which is that it’s important to recognize, of course, that, you know, not all women are necessarily generating messages exclusively focused on peace, love, tolerance, pluralism.
You know, there are voices of women scholars, you know, that push in other directions. And so, you know, there’s a little bit of risk of, you know, here projecting certain stereotypes onto the kinds of roles that women might play. So while I absolutely wholeheartedly, you know, endorse the emphasis that you want to place on the vitally important role of women, I would just want to urge us to be careful not to assume that that nature of that role and the messages associated with it are going to be associated with, you know, necessarily the directions or outcomes that we want.
Q: Thank you.
FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.
OPERATOR: Our next question comes from Michael Saahir of Nur-Allah Islamic Center.
SAAHIR: Yes. Thank you, Peter and Melissa, for the wonderful information that you shared.
But I wanted to ask a question. And this is regarding mainly with the Muslim community. It seems that there is an imbalance when it comes to a need to feel an indebtedness for trying to address or to correct violent extremism. And in particular, that maybe within the USA as well, that some Muslims feel that there is a higher burden that is placed upon them to prove themselves worthy to be Americans, as if we are responsible for the violence that takes place. And then when we encounter that with voices that are in government, leaders in the government, that seems to place that burden also upon the Muslim faith, which can be a negative; which could make someone feel alienated and maybe be more inclined toward being a voice that would lend their energies toward violence. So what would be your comments on that, on how not make that burden be placed upon one sector of society more than another?
NOZELL: So I think one point that’s important to remember is that religious actors, looking at religious leaders who are formally trained but also those who are influenced and motivated by faith, that their role is more complex. Often times religious actors serve in psychosocial supportive roles. And their roles are much more multifaceted. They’re educators. They are—they have jobs in the community that are not just in the religious space. So I think it’s a little bit broader than that.
FASKIANOS: Peter, anything before we move onto the next question?
MANDAVILLE: Yeah. I mean, I would add that in a sense—you know, quite aside from a debate that has really kind of frustrated me over the years, sort of along the lines of, you know, always demanding—you know, where the moderate Muslims standing up to, you know, decry this violence in the name of their religion when, you know, if you really have your ears open at all you will hear that there are—has been a constant stream of Muslim voices speaking loudly and strongly and unequivocally against the use of violence in the name of their religion. But, you know, the problem with that is it’s incredibly inefficient. You know, the role that we should be expecting members of communities to play is not to simply raise their voices in protest. They should, as citizens, as fellow citizens first and foremost, we should be tapping into the many ways and resources that they have within their communities to address the very complex and multidimensional drivers of this problem.
And so I would say that what actually worries me most about this is the particular turn that the manifestation of anti-Muslim sentiment, or as it’s sometimes termed Islamophobia, in this country has taken over the course of the last few years. Where, from where I sit, there seems to be a very well-funded, very well-organized effort that is seeking to suggest that there is somehow a fundamental incompatibility between Muslimness and American values, and the American way of life. And that, to me, is a rather different kind of argument to make than to simply say that there is a higher risk of terrorism associated with Muslims, right? It’s a sort of broader civilization, almost existential angst that some of these groups are trying to instill. And so to my mind, figuring out how to address and deal with this issue—which is, itself, one component of a much broader set of challenges facing our country right now—is really a major priority.
SAAHIR: Yes, sir. Thank you.
FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.
OPERATOR: Our next question comes from Douglas Johnston with International Center for Religion and Diplomacy.
Q: Yes, hi. Thank you. This is actually James Patton in Doug’s stead. How are you guys doing today?
MANDAVILLE: Good, James. It’s good to hear you.
FASKIANOS: Great. Go ahead.
PATTON: Yeah, likewise, Peter. Thank you. And, Melissa, thanks for this.
Peter, I just—or Melissa—I wanted to ask a little bit about the question of fundamentalist religious actors, and including fundamentalist religious actors in countering violent extremism work. We tend to see that fundamentalists are largely excluded, and can be painted oftentimes with the same brush as violent extremists. Whereas, they might have the same ideology, some of them are not violent, don’t embrace violence. And the exclusion of them as participants in CVE or in other social engagements really increases their isolation, which I think increases the conditions for radicalization within the community. And these are folks who usually are right next to the people who are engaging in some of the violent activity, or choosing whether or not to join groups that are engaged in violence.
So I know that there’s a big challenge with engaging fundamentalists, because oftentimes what we’re looking for there is a way to include an exclusive group, or a group that has an exclusive ideology or theology, which is difficult to incorporate into a pluralist space. But I was hoping that you could talk a little bit about the benefits, some of the challenges and maybe some of the best practices around that.
MANDAVILLE: Sure, James. Thanks.
You know, this is a difficult question. I have to say that my own position on it over the years has vacillated enormously. You know, first and foremost, I think that, you know, operating with some of litmus test that says that, you know, particularly, say, conservative or, as you termed it, exclusivist adherents within a particular faith tradition should be off the table as particular interlocutors is very problematic. I think that one needs to be ready and able to engage with any actor that has the potential to have a positive impact. You know, engagement is not the same as endorsement. I think, you know, those things are often equated. And I think certainly when one is in government, there are certain—particular levels of sensitivity involved around that question, which is why we will often need to rely on our partners in civil society to kind of take the lead on that kind of role.
So I think the short answer to my mind is that there is no single response to the question of whether engagement with that segment of a particular faith tradition is an effective tool for dealing with—or, preventing violent extremism. The answer to that must necessarily be contextual. It depends on the setting. And I think an often very fluid situation on the ground. We are going to often have to make a calculation about whether engaging a certain kind of action—or, a certain kind of actor in order to address short-term security risks might not then pose risks to other kinds of values and equities that we care about in the medium to longer term. And I think it really is a sort of dynamic call that you have to make.
But, you know, sort of first and foremost, you know, those of us who have been involved in the CVE, PVE space are quite capable of pointing to any number of situations where, you know, engaging Salafi groups or Salafi leaders in particular countries in the Sahel, in Europe, have been a vitally important part of addressing risk coming from other groups that themselves, you know, are also part of the broader sort of Salafi family. And so, you know, I guess to my mind there is just no single answer to that question. It depends on context. I mean, Melissa might have a useful example to throw into the mix.
NOZELL: Sure. Thank you, James.
So one specific example is looking at Buddhist nationalist movements, for example in Myanmar, and specifically a more exclusionary approach. And there are those sometimes who will not engaging peace dialogues if they’re led by women, by youth, or by programs that are funded by the U.S. government, for example. And one way in which it’s possible to then engage them is by working from our standpoint, for example, with those who are willing to engage with us, and encourage and foster that space where an internal dialogue can then take place that can be led by those who do have access to their colleagues who might not otherwise be willing to engage.
FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.
OPERATOR: Our next question comes from Ani Zonneveld with Muslims for Progressive Values.
ZONNEVELD: Hi. This has been a fascinating conversation, and thank you so much for this input. We do a lot of PVE, the prevention of radicalism here in the United States—(off mic)—aimed with imams, male imams, religious leaders both male and female, in Burundi and Malaysia.
It’s been very challenging in the context of Malaysia, where the Malaysian government itself brands progressive Muslims and critical-thinking liberal Muslims as a threat to national security. So one way of us have been—I just want to share an example of the way we work, is using religious authorities, even from, like, the Marrakesh Declaration, which is not perfect, or the declaration by the Moroccan religious authorities where they make this fatwa that apostasy has nothing to do with Islam but is a political tool, as a shield for us, grassroots organizations, to promote pluralism, the theology of pluralism and inclusivity, in a multiracial, multireligious context.
And in the case of Burundi, we’re up against—competing against very deep-pocketed Salafi and Wahhabi preachers, funded by our friendly Saudis. But the one thing that I have found, as a grassroots—as a civil society based in the United States, that—(audio break)—all over the Muslim world, as well as non-Muslim world, is that there is a tremendous desire by Muslim organizations to counter radicalism at its root, that is the radical theology. If we undermine the radical theology, we undermine a lot of the human right abuses in the name of Islam or in the name of sharia law.
So, to conclude, we have formed a global umbrella organization, called Alliance of Inclusive Muslims. And this was just founded in Tunisia two months ago. And one of our key strategy is countering radicalism. So I invite you to check on our website, AIM, A-I-M, dot-NGO. And I’ll welcome any feedback or partnership in countering radicalism in the Muslim world, using theology, religious, faith-based language—human rights language. Thank you.
FASKIANOS: Thank you. Let’s go onto the next question. I know we have several left, and unfortunately not a lot of time.
OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question comes from Khosro Mehrfar with Federation of Zoroastrian Associations of North America.
MEHRFAR: Hello, everyone. And thank you, Peter and Melissa, for your report.
My question is very basic and fundamental and very simple. But I’m sure if the possible solution is that simple. And part of it deals with the advancement in technology, especially communication, and specifically telecommunication technology, in terms of relationship and connecting people. If I may use very quickly a metaphor, and analogical model, let’s say that religion A and its followers are pyramid A, shown by a pyramid. And the same with religion B. Doesn’t matter what religion. It seems to me that the leaders of these two religions—and it could be more than two, obviously; I’m just trying to make an abstract presentation of it—they communicate internationally, in the conference seminars at the U.N. and different organizations, nationally, and then regionally and locally. But the message of peace and coexistence looks like is not effectively communicated down to the base of this pyramid, which are the mass and the followers of these religious—these two religions.
So my question is really how the communication at the base level, not bypassing the leaders. That’s not my point. But how can the base, the mass of the two followers, their religions—of these two religions can communicate effectively with each other, considering that, like I said originally, that really the telecommunication advancement is getting us together closer. So maybe we can leverage on that possibly. I don’t know the solution. I’m just posing that question in terms of better communication between the two bases of the religions, which are the mass, the people, and followers. So the wrong message doesn’t get to them, or even the message of peace and coexistence don’t get to them.
MANDAVILLE: This is—this is a great question, and a great challenge that you’ve outlined for us. And it also gives an opportunity to kind of dig a little bit into one of the recommendations we made, because the point we raised about the sorts of religious actors and leaders that CVE practitioners and governments often rely on, you know, relates exactly to the point that you raised. We sometimes operate with the idea, particularly when dealing with the Muslim world—and I’m thinking mainly of Western governments trying to figure out how religious authority operates and is structured in the Muslim world.
There’s a tendency to sometimes transplant a sort of Christian or even Catholic—Roman Catholic papal model, right, and to assume that, you know, there must be these kind of global, transnational sheikhs and mufti-type figures, you know, where if you could get them to say the correct thing that all of the Muslims—the 1.6 billion other members of the ummah would simply fall into line with what they have to say. And of course, this just bears no resemblance to the reality of how religious authority works in the Muslim world, much less any other faith tradition in the world.
So, you know, that kind of, I think, encapsulates the sort of faulty paradigm that is often used to think about the relevant voices of religious authority to engage. But the second piece of the puzzle that you posed for us so provocatively is the fact that I think we actually don’t know very much about, let me call it, the sort of sociology of religious knowledge, production, and consumption, particularly among youth in the Muslim world. You know, one of the projects—research projects that I’m working on right now is specifically trying to better understand the impact that information technology, social media, has had on the way that young people in different parts of the Muslim world think about the question of religious authority, where they turn to for religious guidance.
In my mind, it’s not primarily a sort of CVE or PVE project. I’m not even really thinking about those issues in doing it. To me, it’s just an opportunity to learn something about what I believe to be a fundamental shift in the sociology of religious knowledge that have been enabled by certain technological revolutions, and which have implications for many different dimensions of life, and religious life. So thank you very much for kind of bringing our conversation to that crucial, important point.
MEHRFAR: Thank you.
FASKIANOS: Thank you. I’m going to try to sneak in one last question before the end of our time.
OPERATOR: OK. Our next question comes from Michelle Bentsman with Harvard Divinity School.
BENTSMAN: Hi. Thank you so much for this presentation. It’s been really fascinating to listen to.
One question I have is going back a little bit to what Peter said earlier about making greater space for credible voices to be heard. I guess a question that I’ve had while reading this report is what are those spaces? And based—and also, within that question, what is the distinction between ideology and more politically socioeconomic-based work? It seems like those things necessarily have to be linked, to a certain extent, especially thinking about this pyramid metaphor. I feel like there’s a sense in which the theology, you know, finds its greatest expression when brought down to these practical realms. And I’m wondering, you know, is there space for a practical theology? Like, how do we make space for a practical theology? And, like, in what ways does that feel like an important thing to do?
MANDAVILLE: That’s a great question. I mean, the short answer to it—and it does get back to that pyramid metaphor, so thank you again for that. We actually diagramed it on the board here in the room which Melissa and I are speaking from. You know, the kind short policy point, I guess, would be that there’s a problem associated with the fact that most CVE practitioner and governmental outreach has been to religious figures that are at the apex of certain kinds of formal hierarchies or institutions, or have this kind of transnational existence where they attend all the CVE summits, but really don’t have much in the way of constituencies on the ground.
And so the question is, you know, what can we learn first and foremost by engaging with and listening to—not giving instructions or issuing directives to—but engaging and listening to religious leaders at the provincial and local levels, who have a much more sophisticated understanding of these specific contexts that give rise to violent extremism as problem. Indeed, if it’s a hallmark of, for example, the U.S. government’s current CVE strategy, the one put in place in the spring of 2016, that all CVE has to be approached locally and contextually, well, that applies equally to the way that we think about where religion fits into the picture.
FASKIANOS: Melissa, do you have anything to add?
FASKIANOS: So, Peter, do you want to leave us with just one final thought before we close?
MANDAVILLE: Merry Christmas, everyone. (Laughter.)
FASKIANOS: OK. Well, happy holidays. Peter Mandaville and Melissa Nozell, thank you very much for sharing your report with us, for writing it, and giving us your policy recommendations. We really appreciate it, and all the invaluable work that you’re doing. And to all of you, for your comments and questions. They were great.
You can follow Peter and Melissa respectively on Twitter at @PMandaville and at @MelissaNozell. And I also encourage you to follow us, CFR’s Religion and Foreign Policy Program, on Twitter at @CFR_Religion, for announcements about upcoming events and information about the latest CFR resources. So thank you all, again. Happy holidays. And here’s to a wonderful 2018.
MANDAVILLE: Thanks very much, Irina, and everyone.
NOZELL: Thank you.
FASKIANOS: You’re welcome. Take care.