UN General Assembly High-Level Conversation on Religions for Peace

Arsalan Suleman
Acting U.S. Special Envoy to the Organization of Islamic Cooperation 
New York City
May 6, 2016

Thank you Chairman Vendley for your kind introduction and for the Secretariat's flexibility in making late adjustments. And thanks to His Excellency UN General Assembly President Lykketoft for convening this High-Level Conversation on the important shared challenge of countering violent extremism.

I look forward to sharing how the U.S. experience with global religious communities and leaders on CVE can help to inform approaches by the UN and others. I’ll discuss our approach in three ways: drivers of violent extremism; how violent extremists exploit religion; and engaging religious communities and leaders for CVE.

First, religion is rarely the only or primary driver of violent extremism. Our research and experience shows that radicalization toward violence is a multi-causal – and sometimes nonlinear – process. A variety of factors can be the source of grievances including localized conflicts, state-sponsored violence, corruption, political and/or socioeconomic marginalization.

What drives someone to join a violent extremist group in Syria is very different from what drives another in northwestern Pakistan or even in parts of Western Europe. Before deciding on any type of CVE engagement our experience shows that research should be conducted to better understand drivers of violent extremism in a geographic area, among a specific target audience. Applying a data-driven approach can inform how best to engage on CVE – whether through religious communities and leaders or other institutions and civil society.

Second, when considering a CVE response, it is also helpful to understand how violent extremists tend to instrumentalize religion. Some violent extremists groups sometimes use religion as: a source of collective identity; a meta-narrative to explain multiple sources of disaffection; a vehicle for mobilizing violent activity; and a means of exceptionalizing worldly conflict by imbuing it with an eternal purpose.

To be clear, this is not to say that all violent extremists use religion in these ways or even at all, but some do. Many don't, but some do, and understanding this helps to put the role of religion in a more proper context.

Third, based on our experience, we have identified a few general guidelines for engaging religious institutions, leaders, and communities.

Broader engagement: Religious leaders often play broad societal roles and should not only be engaged on CVE issues or be seen as generators of counter-narratives. Rather, engaging religious leaders on a broader set of topics such as corruption or socio-economic marginalization or promoting human rights can also yield CVE-relevant outcomes.

Respect religious leader independence: When engaging religious leaders, one must take great care to respect their independence and avoid instrumentalizing them. Countries in which the state coopts religious authorities often leaves no space for independent leaders to credibly challenge violent extremist views.

Protect Human rights: Protection of human rights, including religious freedom, freedom of expression, and freedom of association and of assembly, are central to effective CVE engagements. CVE activities should not be allowed to serve as covers for restricting peaceful political and religious activities. Restricting these peaceful practices in the name of CVE is counter-productive. Moreover, creating and protecting space for peaceful expression and activities allows for an environment that encourages the development of civil society, which can complement government-initiated CVE activities.

Engage women: Religious leaders tend to be older males, thus it is imperative to include women when engaging religious communities on CVE. Focusing on the role of men can reinforce the male domination of religious communities and miss the key role women play in countering violent extremism.

Understand their relative strengths and limitations: Religious institutions, leaders, and communities can and do play an important role in building resilient communities, but they are not a panacea.

For example, religious institutions affiliated with the state may have the reputation of being government mouthpieces, and thus less credible. That said, these same institutions sometimes possess significant institutional infrastructure and have enduring reputations as centers of religious scholarship.Transnational clerics are often limited in their effectiveness on CVE issues because religious communities view local or provincial level clerics as more credible than their national or transnational counterparts. On the other hand, religious leaders with international reputations may be uniquely placed to lead longer term efforts such as education reform or efforts to convene religious leaders globally around pressing issues.

Another issue affecting religious leader credibility is his/her stance regarding the West. Religious leaders more critical of Western policies are sometimes more credible among religious communities than their counterparts who are sympathetic to Western policies. I point this out to say that CVE engagements should not be limited to those with whom governments are most comfortable working. Governments should have a broad based engagement with key actors even if they are critical of government policies.

Thank you again for convening this important discussion, President Lykketoft. I look forward to our discussion on this important issue.