Speaking before the United Nations on Wednesday, President Barack Obama called on the world to help him defeat the Islamic State in Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS, sometimes called ISIL) in several ways, but also by embracing a very specific tool to help dismantle extremism: peaceful religion.
In his speech, Obama minced few words about his intention to use military force against ISIS — acknowledging U.S. airstrikes in the region and the need to arm local militias to fight them — but insisted that the U.S. “is not and never will be at war with Islam” and reaffirmed his belief that “Islam teaches peace.” He then called on Muslims worldwide to “to explicitly, forcefully, and consistently reject the ideology of al Qaeda and ISIL.”
“Their propaganda has coerced young people to travel abroad to fight their wars, and turned students into suicide bombers,” Obama said. “We must offer an alternative vision.”
He went on to directly address young Muslims:
“You come from a great tradition that stands for education, not ignorance; innovation, not destruction; the dignity of life, not murder,” he said. “Those who call you away from this path are betraying this tradition, not defending it. … [The United States] will increase efforts to lift up those who counter extremist ideology, and seek to resolve sectarian conflict. And we will expand our programs to support entrepreneurship, civil society, education and youth – because, ultimately, these investments are the best antidote to violence.”
By spending much of his speech talking about the need to shore up peaceful visions of Islam, Obama appears to be breathing life into a component of American foreign policy that often goes unrecognized; that the most effective weapon against terrorism in the name of God isn’t just awe-inspiring weaponry and the repeated killing of terrorists, but also a system of robust support for alternative ideologies and peaceful practitioners. Or, as General Martin Dempsey told the Senate Armed Services Committee earlier this month: “ISIL will ultimately be defeated when their cloak of religious legitimacy is stripped away and the populations on which they have imposed themselves reject them.”
One need only look to American history to see the effectiveness of this strategy. When American slaveowners cherry-picked Bible passages to justify the ownership of human beings, it was religious abolitionists who passionately condemned the sin of slavery with an alternative religious vision. When the systematic subjugation of women was explained away as part of “God’s order,” it was early feminists who dug into the scriptures to rediscover a theology that lifts up gender equality as a spiritual standard. And when the Ku Klux Klan lynched African Americans under burning crosses, it was Civil Rights pastors who preached, sang, organized, and marched until the flames of hatred were reduced to cinders. Granted, none of these movements are “finished,” and no human movement is perfect. But over and over again, past encounters show that horrific manipulations of religion are clearly best countered, first and foremost, by an alternative theology that dares believers to pursue divine justice — and peace — rather than terror.
Obama’s words are well timed: many Muslims have been calling for governments to offer broad-based support for peaceful Muslim theology for years, and the effort has already sprung forth anew with the rise of ISIS. Countless Muslims in the United States, Lebanon, France, Egypt, and Iraq have denounced the group over and over again, and British Muslims have now launched a global social media campaign using the hashtag #Notinmyname to distance themselves from ISIS’s deplorable tactics. Such firm rejections of terrorism are nothing new for practitioners of Islam, but Obama’s willingness wholeheartedly embrace them — and repeatedly mention them in a speech to the United Nations — hints that highlighting peaceful Muslim theologies is now a heightened priority.
Of course, intra-religious movements in the United States are not the same as worldwide campaigns, and Obama did not specify how America and its global partners would go about bolstering alternative Muslim ideologies across the globe. Effective faith-based movements are notoriously difficult to manufacture, and it takes time to communicate peaceful theologies that can shift the thinking of those who flirt with extremism. An inauthentic religious movement can easily backfire, and any effort to promote religious ideas other than extremism should be based in theologies that emerge from within Muslim communities. Moreover, while the President acknowledged that words alone won’t silence militants, it bears repeating that radicalization rarely occurs in a vacuum. It tends to grow out of very specific contexts, such as areas wracked by poverty, war, and violence. All of these things are notoriously difficult to eradicate, and need to be addressed by theologies that are equal parts word (calling for peace) and deed (believers who create the conditions for that peace).
Obama is also not the first President to articulate a desire to win the hearts and minds of would-be extremists: George W. Bush also made it clear during his presidency that the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan were not wars “against Islam,” and noted that “the Muslim faith is based upon peace.”
Nevertheless, Obama seems far more dedicated than Bush to prioritizing alternative religious ideologies alongside military force, and his willingness to take religion seriously as a component of counterterrorism efforts is, at the very least, a promising sign. Like it or not, religion matters, and the President’s strategy may be the best hope yet for marginalizing — be it politically, spiritually, or both — the small, radicalized corners of the Muslim world.