Leveraging the Power of Religious Leaders in the Fight Against Violent Extremism

Proliferation of various ideologically-linked violent extremist networks and groups such as Al Qaida, and Daesh and their franchises such as Ḥarakat al-Shabāb al-Mujāhidīn (Al Shabab) in Somalia, Jama‘atu Ahl as-Sunnah li-Da‘awati wal-Jihad (Boko Haram) in West Africa, Ansar al Sunnah in Mozambique, and Madina at Tauheed wal Mujahedeen (ADF) has threatened the stability of many countries and challenged the sanguinity of peaceful coexistence. In the Horn of Africa, about half a dozen religiously-motivated groups are determined to wedge hatred and sow discord between Muslims and non-Muslims. In Kenya and Somalia, in particular, al Shabab continues to spew hateful propaganda, often ingeniously couched in religious concepts, against non-Muslims and sometimes fellow Muslims, as epitomized by numerous terror attacks in the country. Fortunately, a blend of hard and soft approaches by state and non-state actors has seen a significant reduction of their appeal and influence in the region. One critical strands of soft approaches that has particularly worked elsewhere and that needs to be upscaled in the region is the amplification of the role of religious leaders. Religious actors are important in countering violent extremism because of their unique positions of authority, credibility, institutional resources and ties with communities.

Religious leaders, their sectarian affiliations notwithstanding, have a strategic advantage of religious authority that imbue in them respect among believers and society. Majority of monotheistic religions including Islam and Christianity teach that legitimate leaders have authority, in the sense of a right to direct others. Consequently, on these grounds, these leaders are well-positioned to instill and maintain sobriety especially in view of the modern-day religiously-motivated violent extremism. Indeed, religion has been co-opted into battles for the agenda of violence in which there are rampant cases of abuse and misuse of religious ideologies. Therefore, as legitimate authorities in this space, religious leaders need to consistently liberate religion from such misuse and patronages of violent extremists.

Closely connected to the inimitable position of authority is credibility of these faith leaders. These crop of leaders are often the most respected figures in their communities. Imams, sheikhs, pastors, bishops, monks, priests, pujaris, and leaders of other faith communities play a powerful role in shaping attitudes, opinions and behaviors of their members because of the trust they have in these leaders. Religious leaders therefore should leverage this attribute to positively promote spiritual values and virtues like peaceful coexistence and dispel divisive propaganda spread by extremists. In Kenya, for instance, imams and sheikhs should courageously and consistently speak up against al Shabab propaganda and narratives that use Islam as justification. The expected backlash from extremist groups can be dulled by a cohesive and well-coordinated campaign that includes every religious leader.

Religious leaders can also utilize institutional resources at their disposal to contribute towards grander efforts of preventing terrorism and violent extremism, at least from within their spaces. Beyond the infrastructural advantages, are intellectual resources that these religious institutions attract. For instance, in Islam, religious leaders and administrators of mosques and related institutions should mobilize religious scholars and other researchers to initiate and sustain discussions on correcting certain religious concepts that extremists and terrorists have over time manipulated. This includes correct interpretation, clarification, and application of such terms as jihad.  This process, also called doctrinal revision. It has been effectively applied in countries like Egypt and Jordan. In Kenya, BRAVE (Building Resilience Against Violent Extremism), a flagship program by Center for Sustainable Conflict Resolution, a non-government organization focusing on preventing and countering violent extremism has successfully localized the doctrinal revision approach. One of the pillars in the BRAVE Program entails correcting misconceptions and commonly misinterpreted narratives; an ideological push-back. Comparable locally-led programs spearheaded by religious leaders and/or institutions should always be reinvigorated as they contribute towards correct religious interpretations of concepts.

Not all violent extremism is encased in religious terms, and not all extremism is violent. But religious leaders can and do speak up against terrorism and violent extremism by leveraging assets at their disposal. Religious leaders are well placed to add their moral and spiritual leadership to the local and global efforts in the fight against terrorism and violent extremism. Their authority, credibility, and access to institutional resources are some of the unique arsenals they have and could deploy. They should not feel or appear helpless in the fight against terrorism, neither should the fight against extremism be left to a small group of people.

Daniel Iberi is the Strategic Communications Manager at the HORN Institute 

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