What Effect Does Religious Freedom Promotion Have On Counterterrorism?

What is the relationship between counterterrorism strategies and religious freedom? Would greater religious freedom in Muslim countries have prevented the rise of ISIS, al-Qaeda and their supporters, by decreasing grievances in their societies? Or would this have made counterterrorism efforts harder, by decreasing states’ control over “extremist” religious voices?

In this series of articles, we asked authors to examine these challenging questions on the relationship between religious freedom and counterterrorism efforts.

To see all articles in this series visit: Religious Freedom and Counterterrorism


The Global War on Terrorism—a massive US-led struggle to defeat al-Qaeda after the 9/11 attacks—was one of the defining aspect of 21st century international relations. This effort also raised important questions for the study and promotion of religious freedom, namely whether its promotion would strengthen counterterrorism efforts.

Would greater religious freedom in Muslim countries have prevented the rise of al-Qaeda and its supporters, by decreasing grievances in their societies? Or would this have made counterterrorism efforts harder, by decreasing states’ control over “extremist” religious voices? My research on religion and counterterrorism finds that religious freedom can complicate counterterrorism efforts, but its promotion is ultimately preferable to support for repression.

My book, Islamic Politics, Muslim States and Counterterrorism Tensions, can provide some answers to these questions, although they are not easy one. In it, I focused on why Muslim states responded differently to US counterterrorism efforts, and what role religion played in this. I conducted a statistical analysis of all Muslim states’ cooperation with America on counterterrorism, as well as in-depth case studies of Pakistan, Turkey and the United Arab Emirates.  

I found that the differing responses on counterterrorism had to do with Muslim states’ concerns about domestic Islamic opposition to cooperating with America. But this wasn’t due to specific Islamic beliefs. Instead, it was because certain states were officially Islamic and had an important role for Islam in their policies. This strengthened the political positions of Islamic movements and opened up regimes to charges of hypocrisy for acting counter to Islamic activism. In the case of the Global War on Terrorism, Islamic activism tended to involve opposition to Muslim states working with America.  

When I analyzed all Muslim states, I found that states more strongly identified as Islamic were generally less cooperative on counterterrorism than states that were more secular. In fact, being officially Islamic had more of an effect on a state’s counterterrorism cooperation than did the amount of aid it received from the United States or its history of conflict with America.

There were similar dynamics in the case studies. For example, counterterrorism relations between the United States and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) were tense before 9/11, as the latter’s Islamic policies and sentiment led it to turn a blind eye to suspected terrorist financing flowing through the country. Because the UAE limited the power of Islamic groups, however, it was able to crack down on terrorist supporters in the country after US pressure increased (even though some concerns about financing remain).  Additionally, Turkey actually worked relatively closely with America on counterterrorism despite US-Turkish tensions surrounding Turkey’s lack of support for the 2003 invasion of Iraq. While Turkey has been ruled by a conservative Islamic party since 2002, its official secularism limited the power of Islamic groups to punish the state for its actions.   

So what can this tell us about international religious freedom? Unfortunately, the takeaways are more complicated than we might like.

The Muslim states that were most cooperative on counterterrorism were the states that most repressed Islamic movements. These included authoritarian states in the Middle East like Egypt, and Central Asian states like Uzbekistan. Because these states had such strict control over their societies they were able to repress or ignore dissent to their cooperation with America. By contrast, states with more powerful Islamic movements—like Pakistan or Saudi Arabia—had troubled counterterrorism policies as these groups’ opposition to policies threatened the regime’s stability.

This would seem to suggest that religious freedom is bad for counterterrorism; the United States should support Muslim states’ efforts to control all dissent, including religious expression. But that’s not quite the takeaway from my findings. Pakistan and Saudi Arabia are hardly bastions of religious freedom either. They do support Islamic movements, but repress any Muslim activism that does not fit their official standards. These states also restrict the activities of non-Muslims.

A clearer picture emerges when we look in between these two extremes. Relatively democratic Muslim states that provided some protections for religious freedom were generally cooperative on counterterrorism, although they failed to cooperate in some important ways. One example is Turkey. While Turkey has experienced a worrying authoritarian trend in recent years, during the early 2000s it had relatively good protections in place for religious freedom. Accordingly, Turkey did work with America on counterterrorism, as its relatively democratic nature “drowned out” the more extreme voices against cooperation. When it did not cooperate—such as, most notably, the US invasion of Iraq—this was because its democratic system enabled pushback against unpopular US policies.

We may face a tradeoff between short-term security interests—like counterterrorism—and protecting international religious freedom. Extensive limits on religious freedom may help counterterrorism efforts, by giving states the power to implement policies religious members of society oppose without fear of reprisal. Loosening state control over religion, in contrast, would enhance religious freedom. But the state may be more likely to refuse US pressure on controversial efforts (like the Global War on Terrorism).

Overall, support for religious freedom may prove more valuable than short-term counterterrorism progress. Religious freedom can eventually undermine extremism, lessening terrorism’s appeal. And moderate cooperation that has some buy-in from a society is preferable to extensive cooperation forced on a country by an authoritarian state. But these are difficult tradeoffs; it would have been easier to find that religious freedom unquestionably promotes counterterrorism efforts. Religious freedom advocates should thus be prepared to make the case for the ultimate importance of this human right, while acknowledging the limitations its promotion may place on counterterrorism efforts.

Peter S. Henne is an Assistant Professor of Political Science with the University of Vermont. His book, Islamic Politics, Muslim States and Counterterrorism Tensions, was published in February 2017 by Cambridge University Press.  

**All views and opinions presented in this essay are solely those of the author and publication on Cornerstone does not represent an endorsement or agreement from the Religious Freedom Institute or its leadership.**

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