A Necessary Step? Examining Religious Freedom and 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


Governments around the world have been clamping down on religious rights in the name of counterterrorism. In the Middle East and North Africa, leaders have resorted to sham trials, severe sentences for dissidents and the use of force in the name of combatting terrorism. In Central Asia, thousands of men of faith have reported being detained and forced to shave their beards by authorities in order to battle radicalism and foreign religious influences. In 2015, the Tajik parliament banned Arabic-sounding foreign names, while the Supreme Court outlawed the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan, the country’s only Islamic political party. In neighboring Uzbekistan, the state has engaged in a campaign of systematic persecution of religious groups, targeting nonviolent believers who preach or study religion outside of the officially sanctioned state institutions. The government has justified the repression of religion as a necessary step to prevent terrorism. In China, the state passed a series of laws targeted against religious groups, ranging from bans on fasting during Ramadan to prohibitions on the wearing of religious garb, ostensibly for the purpose of nipping religious extremism in the bud. Likewise, across the Atlantic, during his first week in office American President Donald Trump signed an executive order temporarily banning citizens of seven Muslim countries from entering the United States for a period of 90 days and refugees from Syria permanently. The president justified the unprecedented measure on national security grounds.

Governments pursue counterterrorism policies that restrict religious rights in the misguided belief that effectively combatting terrorism requires the limiting or suspending of freedoms like religious liberty. This logic rests on the assumption that liberalism shackles governments from using all of the weapons in their arsenal to optimize their counterterrorism strategies. In countries where this thinking prevails, the result is a perceived zero-sum game: religious restrictions, as morally problematic as they might be, are seen as necessary to curtail religious violence.

History teaches, and many studies confirm, that religiously restrictive counterterrorism policies which discriminate against entire religious groups work at cross purposes with the desired goal of effectively combatting terrorism. This is true for three reasons. First, when states, in the name of combatting terrorism act indiscriminately and treat all people in a particular religious community as terrorists, they waste valuable time, energy and resources monitoring entire religious communities when they instead should be focused very narrowly on those who actually are terrorists. Only a very small percentage of individuals in any faith tradition believe that terrorism is justifiable; many fewer still actually take up the gun. Second, such actions inevitably serve to generate sympathy for terrorism, lead people to turn to terrorist groups for protection, and end up creating more terrorists. Indiscriminate and widespread repression of religion in the name of counterterrorism raises the costs of remaining peaceful for ordinary citizens, insofar as armed resistance presents the possibility of changing the status quo. Third, discriminatory policies against entire religious communities makes it far less likely that individuals from those communities will cooperate with law enforcement officials on counterterrorism efforts. These logics explain why terrorist groups hope to provoke overreactions by states against the communities they claim to be defending.

 Consider just a few examples. After a small band of Hindu Tamils carried out an attack against an army patrol in 1983, Sri Lanka witnessed an anti-Tamil pogrom throughout much of the country known as “Black July.” The pogrom and riots resulted in the deaths of hundreds of Tamils who had nothing to do with the army patrol attack. Black July led many ordinary Tamils to turn to the Tamil Tigers for protection, which helped transform the Tigers into a major insurgent force. Sri Lanka would be ravaged by civil war between Sinhalese Buddhists and Hindu Tamils for nearly three decades.

In Northern Ireland, Great Britain supported various Protestant paramilitary groups in an effort to root out the Provisional Irish Republican Army. Only a very small minority of Catholic citizens in Northern Ireland actually participated in the conflict, but Britain pursued a policy of widespread discrimination against Catholics including sham trials, arbitrary arrests, and detentions without trial. Expectedly, these discriminatory policies drove many ordinary Catholics into the arms of the Provisional Irish Republican Army, greatly strengthening the militant organization. Without the widespread support of Tamils in Sri Lanka or Catholics in Northern Ireland, the Tamil Tigers and the Provisional Irish Army could not have survived.

 Following a 2015 terrorist attack in France, the government of President Francois Hollande implemented and then extended a state of emergency throughout the country. The new emergency laws were used to justify widespread religious profiling of non-violent Muslims, who found themselves the targets of warrantless house raids, random public searches, and personal data seizures — all without judicial authorization. A 2016 Amnesty International report found that the emergency measures were “implemented in a discriminatory manner, specifically targeting Muslims, often on the basis of their beliefs and religious practices rather than any concrete evidence of criminal behavior,” further embittering millions of Muslim immigrants who have long been socially and economically marginalized in French society. Unsurprisingly, French Muslim communities have become prime recruiting grounds for ISIS, and terrorism in France continues to rise.

 In sharp contrast to Sri Lanka, Great Britain and France, Japan adopted a very different approach to counterterrorism. In 1995, the terrorist cult Aum Shinryko released sarin nerve gas in the Tokyo subway system, killing twelve passengers and several thousand others. In response to the attack, the Japanese government acted decisively, aggressively going after those responsible for the attack and their supporters. Japan did so, however, in a manner respectful of religious freedom. The state did not ban Aum Shinkryko, nor did it take anti-religious measures by targeting all religious groups. In the end Aum ended up imploding, eventually splitting in 2007. It carried out no further terrorist attacks, and thousands renounced membership in the organization. Such a happy outcome would have been less likely had Japan chosen a counterterrorism strategy repressive of religion.

For counterterrorism efforts to be successful, they must marginalize terrorists from the wider populations they claim to represent. Terrorist organizations die when states refuse to play into their hands by overreacting, when they are no longer able to appeal to new recruits, and when sympathizers in the wider population turn against them. On the other hand, counterterrorism policies that discriminate on the basis of religion and restrict religious liberty have the opposite effect of driving ordinary people toward terrorist organizations. In such contexts, religious terrorists are much more likely to find a receptive audience to their message that their faith is under siege and that violence is justified. While religious freedom in counterterrorism may not be completely without problems, as Peter Henne argues, ultimately, counterterrorism efforts which are respectful of religious freedom empower moderate ideas and voices to denounce extremist hatred and violence.


Nilay Saiya is an assistant professor of political science and Director of International Studies at the State University of New York, Brockport and a Senior Fellow of the Religious Freedom Institute. His research concerns religion and global politics, international security, and American foreign policy. Nilay is currently working on a project examining the relationship between religious repression and terrorism. He earned his Ph.D. from the University of Notre Dame in 2013.


**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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