18th October 2016 Geneva, Switzerland
FCO Conference on Preventing Violent Extremism: How Freedom of Religion or Belief can help
Violent extremism is of course nothing new, but today we are confronted by the rapid growth of a particular form of it which is linked by its perpetrators to the tenets of one of the world’s great religions, Islam.
It is worth just pausing for a moment to consider that violent extremism is not new, because it is all too easy with violent extremism to adopt a reactionary response and to forget the lessons of the past. We should remember that only a few decades ago violent extremism in the form of fascism poisoned and destroyed whole communities in Europe, and is on the rise again in certain places.
How can Freedom of Religion or Belief help combat Daesh’s propaganda? Promoting Freedom of Religion or Belief should be part of our response, because the argument of many Daesh supporters is that only they themselves have a right to decide who is a believer and who is not. Indeed they take this arrogant view a step further by deciding that non-believers may be killed. In other words, their approach is the diametrical opposite of freedom of religion.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad Al-Hussein, has described what goes on as follows:
“The takfiri movement is gripped and driven by a distinct ideology: and it will destroy all that exists which is contrary to what it believes should exist. To the takfiris, there is only one acceptable manner in which to live. Alternative view-points – indeed, any form of individual thought outside of their closed unyielding logic – is rejected by them. Those dissenting humans must be murdered, their memory, culture, every shred of their existence, destroyed. Every single person in this room is eligible for death, according to their thinking (his statement of 18 November 2014 to the UN Security Council).”
It is important to understand, as Zeid does, that the propaganda of Daesh and Al Qaeda is a form of “takfiri” ideology, because only if we understand it will we be able to combat it. “Takfir” is an Arabic word which means to make someone an “unbeliever” or “kafir” – in other words, to decide that some people are not true believers.
Drawing on a letter from over 100 Muslim scholars, Zeid also said in the same speech:
“It is forbidden in Islam to oversimplify Shari’ah matters and ignore established Islamic sciences.
It is forbidden in Islam to ignore the reality of contemporary times when deriving legal rulings.
It is forbidden in Islam to kill the innocent.
It is forbidden in Islam to kill emissaries, ambassadors and diplomats, hence it is forbidden to kill journalists and aid workers.
It is forbidden in Islam to harm or mistreat – in any way – Christians or any ‘People of the Scripture.’
It is obligatory to consider the Yazidis as ‘People of the Scripture’.
The re-introduction of slavery is forbidden in Islam. It was abolished by universal consensus.
It is forbidden in Islam to force people to convert.
It is forbidden in Islam to deny women their rights.
It is forbidden in Islam to deny children their rights.
It is forbidden in Islam to torture people.
It is forbidden in Islam to disfigure the dead.
And, it is forbidden in Islam to declare a caliphate without consensus from all Muslims.”
Two conclusions may be drawn from Zeid’s remarks: firstly, that takfirism is inconsistent with Islam. And secondly, that if we are to combat takfirism we need to address the ideology that lies behind it. Again, Zeid had a suggestion about how we should do that:
“Thought must therefore be undermined by thought. And takfirism must be thwarted by an approach to life couched in those principles and laws binding all of us, a system which will be more successful and enriching because it is open to the multiple realities of all human beings”.
Freedom of Religion or Belief is one of those principles that is open to the multiple realities of all human beings. Through its incorporation into the laws of the member states of the United Nations, in line with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, we can help to combat takfirism. Too many UN member states have failed to implement key provisions of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. We should work to close the gaps, and to promote the implementation of Freedom of Religion or Belief. The UK Mission to the United Nations in Geneva does this every year through our support for Human Rights Council resolutions on Freedom of Religion or Belief and Combating Religious Intolerance, and for the work of the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief. At the Foreign and Commonwealth Office Conference on Preventing Violent Extremism in London tomorrow, we will be calling on all states to implement these resolutions.