AS RECENT EVENTS in Australia and overseas attest, violent extremist acts persist as a chosen tool for radical groups to terrorise populations and recruit more adherents. This is despite a wide array of prevention, containment and rehabilitation strategies in place around the world.
These strategies range from the intrusions of the Chinese surveillance system and the Egyptian police, to the relationship building of community liaison officers in the Australian Federal Police; from Singaporean public-private partnerships to rehabilitate prison detainees, to the checklists all USA citizens can use to rate the risk of individuals, families and communities turning to violent extremism.
Yet more can be done, in fact, one might say that more needs to be done.
One approach to countering violent extremism that governments are beginning to add to their toolbox is the use of interfaith and intercultural dialogue (IID).
INTERFAITH AND INTERCULTURAL dialogue (IID) occurs when members or representatives of different faith and/or cultural communities come together with the goal, at least in part, to develop or strengthen understanding of each other. Coming together can be in the form of official or ad hoc discussions and exchanges, collaborative projects or coordinated activism. As such, IID “fosters the (re)building of trust relations and enhances social cohesion…both locally and globally, by recognizing the importance of integrating religious identities into inter-group dialogue”. Such dialogues can help “to overcome philosophical and religious extremism, stereotypes and prejudices, ignorance and indifference, intolerance and hostility”.
In November 2014, Pope Francis made an official visit to Turkey where he spoke of the challenges of finding peace in the current climate. He said,“interreligious and intercultural dialogue can make an important contribution to attaining this lofty goal [of peace and sustainable development], so that there will be an end to all forms of fundamentalism and terrorism…”. With this astoundingly optimistic statement, Pope Francis was not proposing a forum where fundamentalists and terrorists sit down with people of other faiths and cultures to respectfully share their beliefs. He was saying that if we are serious about combatting violent extremism, then IID is an important, even necessary, tool. This is because IID can help address many of the external, social and individual causes of extremism.
In examining the roots of violent extremism, the focus is not actually on the extremist act itself. Rather, the focus is on what drives a person towards extremism. This personal progression of an individual towards more extreme views that may lead to violent fundamentalism, extremism or terrorism is often termed ‘radicalisation’.
Radicalisation is not a graduated process susceptible individuals undergo that eventuates in extremist acts. Rather, radicalisation is best seen as a path along which one travels. It has stops and starts, backtracks and even forks that may lead in completely different directions. How quickly and how far along the path of radicalisation a person travels differ for each individual, contingent upon external influence, social circumstance and individual agency.
It is in these three areas of contingency that IID has a role to play. The first area of contingency that may contribute to an individual’s radicalisation is that of external influences. These can be political, economic or cultural. Pope Francis’ visit to Turkey was an example of IID with a focus on improving the political environment. Another is Religions for Peace, which is a worldwide interfaith organisation that has been operating for over forty years. IIDs can also seek to impact broad economic policies.
For example, the recent G20 Interfaith Summit held on the Gold Coast of Queensland, Australia was an interfaith dialogue that examined the connections between religious freedom and economic development. Finally, an example of an IID that seeks to strengthen the cultural milieu is the Asia-Pacific Regional Interfaith Dialogue series, held most recently in Semarang, Indonesia.
THE SECOND AREA is social circumstances which may also effect how an individual travels the radicalisation path. The social groups with which one identifies and the dynamics of one’s various networks can all play a role in furthering an individual down the radicalisation path. IID can legitimise engagement with people of other cultures and faith traditions while broadening networks and increasing access to moderate voices from various communities. One example includes the Queensland Forum for Christians, Jews and Muslims, a monthly social gathering of leaders and community workers from a range of traditions in each faith group.
The final area of contingency impacting a person’s path of radicalisation is individual agency. An individual makes certain choices that determine their personal progress towards extremism. IID can provide both cognitive and emotional experiences with other groups or individuals that positively reinforce moderate views. For example, Rabbi Zalman Kastel credits interfaith encounters with Christians and Muslims as transforming his personal views and leading to the establishment of the multi-faith Together for Humanity Foundation, which has the express purpose of providing positive interfaith and cross-cultural experiences to Australian youth.
Interfaith and intercultural dialogue can contribute to efforts to curtail violent extremism by addressing key areas of concern in the radicalisation of individuals. To be effective, however, the IID process needs to be targeted, robust and implemented with care.
The process needs to be targeted. No single IID can address the entire range of roots causes for violent extremism. Therefore, the objective needs to be well understood before designing a process to address it. Is the target area external, social or individual? If external, is it political, economic or cultural? If social, are you addressing the groups with which some may identify or the increasing the breadth or strength of their networks? If individual, are you providing cognitive or emotional experiences?
It is essential that the process be robust. Remember that the path of radicalisation can be travelled in both directions. There will be advances and retreats, progress and setbacks. A robust process will survive these “bumps in the road” by addressing a real issue of need, by being inclusive of the breadth of stakeholders and decision makers, by being flexible and adaptive to changes in the socio-political environment and by having the resources to support it throughout the timeframe of concern or until objectives are met. Finally, a robust process is supported by a solid monitoring and evaluation design. Not all IIDs are of equal efficacy. Some are better at addressing violent extremism than others. Having a clear understanding of what the target area is will go a long way to developing the M/E instrument.
Care must be taken when implementing an IID process. If poorly implemented, IID can have the opposite effect by strengthening negative interpretations and justifying separation, fear and alienation between groups. Or, they can be co-opted by fringe groups to give a veneer of legitimacy to otherwise extreme positions. Therefore, trust must be built/established; understanding of the community, group or individual must be obtained; and cultural, religious, and/or economic needs must be recognised and taken into consideration. One way of strengthening the care in implementation is by having good research in place to produce the insights and interpretations to inform process design and implementation. A second recommendation is to put together a group made up of faith and community leaders, as well as dialogue practitioners, to advise on the design and implementation.
*This was originally posted in the Machinery of Government Blog here.