72 the side of evil. Second, it also risks pushing their active but non-violent supporters toward violence, further radicalizing their passive supporters, and alienating their co-religionists who do not support the movement or share the same Manichean worldview but may feel it is the religion rather than the extremists that is under attack.1 This is especially the case when violent extremists may be articulating more widely held grievances or deeply held beliefs. As groups and societies come into closer contact than ever before and traditional values are confronted by post-modern ones, the old set of ethics of right versus wrong will continually give way to the more challenging paradigm of right versus right. A counter-appeal based on a right versus wrong paradigm regarding belief can thus be counter-productive, reinforcing the extremists’ worldview and possibly forcing co-religionists to choose sides. Nuance and a comfort with ambiguity are rarely as compelling as the simple logic of good versus evil. Those charged with beating back the appeal of religious extremism need to be armed with a black and white worldview that simultaneously evinces support for pluralism, an intellectual balance that is not easy to achieve. EWI recommends a two-pronged approach, one for government and one for leading persons of faith and civil society. It also recommends cooperation among the three regarding the definition and labeling of extremist threats. The government must always separate belief and action and focus on the latter. To quote Mike German, a former member of the FBI who has infiltrated terrorist organizations, for governments: “There are not bad ideas, there is bad behavior.”2 It is impossible to enforce orthodoxy, but to say killing people is wrong is a message any liberal government should credibly be able to deliver. Regardless of the many responses governments may take in reaction to extremism, those who reside in a country and attempt or commit violence against the populace should be labeled as criminals, not soldiers or warriors. Leading persons of faith and civil society must reinforce this message. They should also go further, and mount a counter-appeal that attacks religious extremists precisely for their Manichean worldview. Extremists should be indicted for arrogating and
Passive supporters include individuals who quietly sympathize with the insurgents but are unwilling to provide material assistance. Active supporters include those willing to make sacrifices and risk personal harm by either joining the movement or providing intelligence information, concealment, shelter, hiding places for arms and equipment, medical assistance, guides, and liaison agents. It also may include those who carry out acts of civil disobedience or protest that may result in punishment by the government. Bard O’Neill, Insurgency and Terrorism (Washington, DC: Potomac Books, 2005), 94-96. 2 Mike German (former special agent with the Federal Bureau of Investigation, current policy counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union) interviewed by Daniel Levitas (EWI Researcher), March 2007.
misconstruing the tenets of the faith to support their criminal acts, as well as for offering false truths and nostrums in response to complicated problems. For faith leaders, rhetoric must evidence an understanding of religious ideology and the counter-message must be calibrated to address specifically how extremists are violating both the law and the central tenets of their faith. Further, when religion is used as a vehicle or rationale for violence that is inherently political, rhetoric responding to that violence should focus on the core motivations and not the religious veneer. Civil society can play an active role here, drawing attention to these underlying risk factors and focusing public attention on them. Regarding the definition and labeling of extremist movements, this may seem an academic indulgence. It is not. Combating violent extremism perpetrated in the name of religion is, at its core, an ideational struggle. For such an undertaking, words matter. Even as this report examines extremism across the three Abrahamic faiths, and uses terms that are equivalent linguistically —Jewish extremists, Christian extremists, and Muslim extremists—they are not contextually equal. Currently, different (and worse) connotations are associated with the term “Muslim extremists” than with the others.3 Moreover, the former two terms are rarely used within Israel and the United States respectively. All of this has the dual effect of reinforcing the belief by many Muslims throughout the world that their religion is under attack, while simultaneously letting members of the Jewish and Christian communities off the hook with regard to addressing violence perpetrated in the names of their faiths.4 Finding ways of reducing the association between religion and extremism may be one way forward, and a possibly fruitful one given a goal of de-linking those who perpetrate violence from the religion in whose name they claim to act. This demands a new way of labeling all violent extremists that is faith-neutral, a potentially Herculean undertaking. Nonetheless, civil society and leading persons of faith, in concert with policymakers and academics, should make a determined attempt to employ new terminology that clearly reveals both the commonalities amongst violent extremists and what differentiates them from mainstream members of the groups they claim to represent. This new language should focus the blame for violent acts on narrow segments of a religious or ethnic group and not draw upon stereotypes and presumptions. The goal should not be to formulate value-free terminology, since we do want to make a value judgment about people who use violence.
EWI is exploring this issue through a separate component of the project that focuses on the role rhetoric and language play with regard to violent extremism. 4 Members of the Jewish and Christian clergy from Israel and the United States, respectively, made this point at EWI’s Towards a Common Response: New Thinking Against Violent Extremism & Radicalization conference, June 14, 2007.
Published on Jul 23, 2010
Published on Jul 23, 2010