The Platform


Religion can play a vital role in countering extremism.

Political and religious extremism poses a significant threat to our contemporary world. Manifesting in various forms such as psychological, political, cultural, and religious extremism, it arises from factors including a lack of moderation, empathy, and understanding, as well as discrimination and isolation. Thus, there is an urgent need to mitigate and combat extremism.

Various strategies have been adopted worldwide to curb extremist behaviors, including educational initiatives, community engagement, social cohesion, religious cooperation, legal measures, and economic interventions. Among these, religion plays a vital role in countering extremism.

According to Kevin Schilbrack, the term “religion” did not initially refer to a specific societal or cultural category. Stemming from the Latin word “religio,” it represented “scrupulousness,” encompassing conscientiousness, devotion, and a sense of obligation. These qualities were attributed to the observance of taboos, promises, curses, or transgressions, even outside the realm of deity worship. It was recognized in ancient Western civilizations, and likely other cultures, that different groups revered various gods, leading to social rivalries due to conflicting commitments. However, a closer examination of various religions reveals that religion can act as a potent unifying force, nurturing compassion, fostering understanding, and advocating for peace and cooperation.

Many definitions of religion exist, and throughout history, we have seen conflicts among religions continue to occur. However, in most of these conflicts, religion is not the sole culprit but is intertwined with other factors such as ethnicity, politics, and historical circumstances. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict exemplifies this, and as Christian Moe highlights in “Religion in the Yugoslav Conflicts,” the Bosnian conflict is rightly termed “ethnoreligious,” where religious identities are integral to ethnic ones.

John F. McCauley’s book Ethnicity and Religion in Nigeria’s Biafran War, notes that the conflict’s frame shifted from ethnicity to religion. As Katherine Marshall states in “Religious Factors in the Rohingya Crisis: A Horrific State of Limbo,” what are often perceived as “religious” conflicts frequently tie into struggles for political power or economic advantage, making the disentanglement of the religious dimension complex and challenging.

Religions and philosophies across the globe commonly uphold peace and harmony as central tenets. Religion provides a calming and enlightening environment, fostering spiritual growth and tranquility in a world primarily driven by profit. The adoption of symbols, attire, worship practices, and colors by different religions is to instill discipline and maintain unique identities.

Since their inception, religions have served as moral compasses, driving humanity towards empathy and kindness. Christianity advocates for loving one’s neighbor as oneself, Islam promotes brotherhood and compassion for all believers, Buddhism encourages loving-kindness and the alleviation of suffering, Hinduism emphasizes the unity of all living beings as one family, Sikhism champions selfless service and equality, and Jainism upholds nonviolence and empathy towards all creatures.

However, extremist interpretations of religious principles have paved the way for radical ideologies. Susilo Wibisono makes the point in “A Multidimensional Analysis of Religious Extremism,” religious extremists are often driven by perceived injustice and seek martyrdom. They harbor a deep love for their religion, show disdain for others, and refuse to engage in productive discourse.

Groups such as Islamic State, the Taliban, and Al-Qaeda have manipulated Islam to achieve their goals. They present their fight against certain Arab governments as a holy obligation and promote Islam as the only solution to societal and economic challenges. Similarly, Roland Marchal’s “Motivations and Drivers of Al-Shabaab” details how Al-Shabaab seeks to implement Sharia law and expel perceived foreign Christian forces from Somalia. The extremist practices of such groups are not only disruptive but also violate human rights.

These extremist interpretations have significant consequences, fueling religious rivalries and promoting hostility and violence. Furthermore, these interpretations, which distort religious teachings, can lead to the marginalization of certain communities, hinder peaceful coexistence, and violate human rights. Extremists may selectively interpret or distort parts of religious texts, leading to a warped perception of religion and harmful practices.

Addressing the destructive consequences of extremist interpretations necessitates embracing the true teachings of religion. The solution to these challenges requires a multidisciplinary approach involving various stakeholders such as governments, non-governmental organizations, international bodies, the media, the public, educators, and religious leaders.

Governments, as custodians of the public welfare, must safeguard human rights, ensure national security, and maintain law and order. They should prioritize monitoring educational materials for extremist ideologies and act swiftly if found. Non-governmental organizations can foster interfaith dialogues and community development, and international collaboration is essential as extremism is a global threat. The media plays a crucial role in fact-checking and validating information, thus countering radicalization. Families can promote harmony, peace, and coexistence, and schools and religious leaders bear a significant responsibility. Teachers can instill empathy and understanding in children through religious education, while religious leaders can counter false narratives and report any extremist preaching to the authorities.

Harnessing the true tenets of religion is key to fostering a unified front against extremism. A multi-faceted approach involving various societal stakeholders is essential to combat religious extremism and promote peace and harmony.

Charani Patabendige is a Acting Research Analyst and Assistant at the Institute of National Security Studies; a Sri Lankan think tank associated with the Ministry of Defence. Charani is a postgraduate student reading for MPhil/PhD in Law. She also holds a Bachelor’s degree in Law from General Sir John Kotelawala Defence University. She has represented Sri Lanka at several regional and international forums.