Wanna Defeat Violent Extremism? Then Protect Free Speech

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 scourge of violent extremism proliferates in an atmosphere of discursive suffocation. Islamist radicals and extremists enjoy a monopoly over religious discourse. We will not really succeed in confronting this menace until we break up this monopoly. The key to doing so involves protecting free speech.

On May 24th I had the honor of testifying before the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission in the U.S. House of Representatives. In my testimony I highlighted the challenges that we face in trying to promote religious freedom in Muslim majority countries. One major conundrum is how do we advance liberty without appearing as though we are imposing our own values. It is this perception that entities like ISIS, al-Qaeda and other violent extremists exploit to their advantage and we inadvertently end up strengthening their vile narratives.

While promoting religious freedom can inadvertently serve as more fuel for the fire of violent of extremism it also can serve as an antidote – provided that it is carefully employed. Like many other such desired outcomes there is no linear path to achieving religious freedom. A key pre-requisite is the protection of free speech. People have to be able to speak freely in order for freedom of religion to be fully appreciated.

Generally speaking, people feel very uncomfortable when critical questions are raised about doctrinal matters. Complicating this reality is the notion of blasphemy. For Muslims this is a matter of life and death. Statements perceived as blasphemous can lead to legal action by the authorities and/or worse, death at the hands of vigilantes.

Blasphemy has become a weapon to silence those who dare to question established dogma. Anymore, mob violence pre-empts any attempt by the state to apply these draconian laws. Countless souls have perished because of this social madness. But perhaps the bigger casualty is the stifling of discussion, which perpetuates the status quo.

Certainly there are many who express moral outrage over these moves by the state and society to crush legitimate discussion under the guise of preserving religious norms. Far greater are those who do not see a problem with murder in the name of the upholding faith. Perhaps most damning is that this silent majority does not subscribe to an extremist ideology of jihadism. Rather it adheres to traditional and conservative religious interpretations.

In other words, there is considerable overlap between radical Islamist ideas and religious norms upheld by the average believer. Such is the fluidity between these two spaces that it is virtually impossible to demarcate the boundaries between them. One cannot say when a person is simply practicing good old-fashioned religion and when he/she slips into extremism. A common denominator between the two is intolerance for dissenting views. 

Islamist radicals and extremists constitute a small number of political actors in Muslim-majority nations. But they thrive in a broader social environment where most people may not agree with their violent approach. However, they share many of the same objectives and interpretations of religion. Between the finite number of violent extremists and the laity are different types of religious and political groups many of whom are inadvertent enablers of Islamist militancy.

We often hear calls for modern interpretations of the Islamic texts. But those efforts seem to go nowhere – in large part because of the dominance of medieval prescriptions, which are protected by a culture that is heavy on the notion of blasphemy. There is a dire need to break this monopoly over religion. Radical and extremist ideas need to be effectively challenged with opposing perspectives.

Alternative narratives are having a hard time gaining ground because of the lack of open discussion. This is because people are afraid to discuss out of fear for their lives. They know that the laws of the land are not in their favor. Thus the focus should be to foster safe spaces for public dialogue on contentious issues.

Put differently free speech needs to be protected. It is the key to truly dismantle the phenomenon we have come to know as violent extremism. Ultimately the free flow of ideas is the only effective weapon against it. Extremist ideas tend to be very simplistic and cannot compete in an arena where rigorous and nuanced discussions are taking place. It is only because of the dearth of such public debates that the extremists have the upper hand in terms of the narrative.

By promoting free speech we can put the extremists on the defensive - a process, which when it matures, can eventually render their ideas inert. Muslim governments need to be persuaded to promote and protect the freedom of speech. This is not beyond their capabilities if they have the political will. Those same coercive apparatuses that are quite capable of suppressing opponents can be used to protect free speech.

Muslim governments will not do this for the west; rather they will do it for their own geopolitical interests.   


Kamran Bokhari is a Senior Analyst with the intelligence firm, Geopolitical Futures. He is also a Senior Fellow with the Center for Global Policy. Bokhari teaches courses on national security and foreign policy to Canadian government officials at the University of Ottawa. He is also a Fellow with George Washington University’s Program on Extremism.


**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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