Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


Combating Religious Extremism: A New Approach

S.I. Strong

Religious and political extremism present democratic societies with a quandary:  how should a system built on tolerance deal with intolerant beliefs and behavior?  Traditionally, states have adopted one of two responses: (1) ignore the activity in question or (2) seek to restrict or ban the problematic individuals, groups or actions.  However, studies suggest that neither of these techniques has any real or lasting effect.

Fortunately, there is another alternative.  As I discuss in my book, Transforming Religious Liberties:  A New Theory of Religious Rights for National and International Legal Systems, scholars have found that the best way to limit both the spread and impact of religious and political extremism is by engaging with the issues underlying extremist philosophies rather than by shutting such views out of political discourse altogether. Although this approach may not convince individuals at the far end of the spectrum to abandon their particular beliefs or behaviors, a policy of engagement can help curb extremism by reducing the attractiveness of those types of messages among those who are in some ways sympathetic to the extremist cause and thereby decreasing direct and indirect support for extremist behavior among more moderate members of the community in question.

While the diversity of extremist groups can make generalizations difficult, religious extremists often justify their behavior on the claim that they and their co-religionists cannot fully or freely practice their faith. Primary among extremists’ demands is the desire to impose their religious standards even on those who do not wish to comply.  While religious moderates disagree with certain aspects of extremists’ behavior, they may agree with some of the extremists’ goals and may therefore provide moral, social or financial support to the extremist cause. This type of support is critical, since extremists – who actually account for a very small number of individuals within any religious group – cannot maintain or expand their operations without the support of moderates.   Thus, any mechanism that limits moderates’ willingness to align themselves with extremist views limits extremist behaviour.

Existing systems of religious rights were initially developed as a means of minimizing religio-legal conflict and thus might seem capable of addressing contemporary forms of religious extremism.  However, the current approach to religious rights was formulated in response to the seventeenth century European wars of religion and reflects both the values of that time as well as the nature (intra-religious as opposed to inter-religious) of that particular conflict.  While this framework has been largely successful, recent increases in religious pluralism and changes to the concept of both public and private concerns have created various difficulties as a matter of law and policy.  As a result, it may be time to consider whether it is possible to redesign the current approach to construct a system that will better protect the religious liberties of both religious and non-religious people, thereby reducing the level of support among religious moderates for extremist activities and groups.

The best model would likely maintain the most important aspects of the current religious rights regime while incorporating certain concerns enunciated by religious individuals.  In my book, Transforming Religious Liberties:  A New Theory of Religious Rights for National and International Legal Systems, I discuss how the contemporary religious rights regime can be adapted to increase protections for religious individuals of all faith traditions while maintaining a system that is acceptable to secularists and other non-religious individuals.  Such a system is expected to create a legal and political environment that will reduce direct and indirect support for religious extremism and thereby create a more peaceful world for us all.

About The Author

S.I. Strong

Professor S.I. Strong is the Manley O. Hudson Professor of Law at the University of Missouri and an adjunct professor at Georgetown University Law Center, having formerly taught at...

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