US President Trump (right) and Saudi King Abdul Aziz (centre), in Riyadh in May 21, 2017. Photo: PA Images. All rights reserved.
Countering and preventing violent extremism is a top priority for the international community today. And, notably, international actors are increasingly eager to engage local religious groups in the belief that they are well-placed in communities to provide alternative peaceful visions for would-be extremist supporters.
This is a significant new trend and it can be appropriate in some contexts. However, there are lessons learned by women’s rights movements – who have been at the forefront of addressing and preventing extremism for decades – which must inform the international community in this process.
For instance: women’s rights activists have long known that extremists distort religion and make selective use of it to justify violence in their quest to gain and maintain political power or access to resources. For this reason, wherever we see the rise of extremism, we can also find resistance including from secular political groups and social movements.
The international community must not undermine such local movements against extremism and should instead continue to support them and their valuable perspectives too. Crucially, engagement with religious groups cannot come at the price of undermining rights: the groups we work with must have a commitment to universal rights as well as peace.
Crucially, engagement with religious groups cannot come at the price of undermining rights.
Unfortunately, too many international groups seem to have engaged and partnered with actors who, while espousing peace from a religious perspective, actually harbour misogynistic and discriminatory viewpoints when it comes to women’s rights, sexual minorities, or religious and ethnic minorities.
For example, many countries engaged in the “global coalition to counter ISIS” continue to discriminate in law and in practice against women and LGBT people – including Saudi Arabia, which recently reaffirmed its commitment to work with US President Trump against extremism and terrorism. The Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) has also been repeatedly engaged by international groups, but its position on women and sexual rights is regressive at best.
While international actors cannot engage in testing the ideologies of our local partners, we must not inadvertently strengthen groups which espouse more acceptable or less overt forms of violence, such as that perpetrated against women and sexual minorities. We have an obligation not to undermine the concept of universal values, even when faced with arguments based on culture and religion.
To give into these arguments would be turning our backs on universal human rights and could increase risks to those working to promote rights locally. At a minimum, even if our partners feel they cannot advocate fully and vocally for universal rights, they must commit to never actively promote discrimination and they must not condone violence against women, sexual minorities, ethnic and racial minorities and other marginalised groups.
Violence against women and extremism are intrinsically linked and we cannot dismiss or accept such violence as a cultural phenomenon. Extremists specifically and strategically target women and their efforts to ensure equality and rights. They often attribute women’s progress to a western-imposed agenda, playing on vulnerabilities and beliefs that are inherent to progress and transition and are often rooted in injustices at the hands of colonial rulers or non-democratic governments aligned with western powers.
Old town Tripoli, Libya. Photo: Simon Kremer/PA Images.
For example, in 2012 a Libyan activist observed that extremists in that country first focused their attention and violence on women, targeting those who went to coffee shops. Their argument was that women appearing in such public places was against traditional values and beliefs. In Aceh, Indonesia, one of the first decrees of the local government seeking to impose its version of Sharia law was to ban women from wearing pants, claiming these were western imports.
Extremists, whether Christian, Buddhist or Muslim, often present women’s rights as opposed to religion, and in so doing build alternative truths around which they can unite segments of the population. The targeting of women’s rights and the perpetuation of violence against women are strategies used by extremists to gain legitimacy within their communities. They build on this to push for other agendas, which promote hate and violence against marginalised groups.
The targeting of women’s rights is a strategy used by extremists to gain legitimacy within their communities.
In the US, the religious right has been extremely successful in gaining public support and mobilising its constituents by opposing women’s reproductive health rights, namely abortion. They have done so based on religious justifications and through violence targeting women and clinics providing abortion services. The Christian right’s agenda has since grown to include advocacy against LGBT people and, increasingly, against Muslims and immigrants.
Violence against women is a springboard issue for many extremist groups; the perpetuation of such violence is a coalescing and binding force in coalitions designed to promote violence against other groups. In addressing and preventing violent extremism we must therefore pay special attention to the gendered aspects of violence perpetrated by extremists.
We have to remember, too, that state actors can also promote extremist ideologies or justify policies on the basis of religion which target the rights of women and minorities and feed sectarianism and conflict. Governments may adopt policies that financially or otherwise support non-state extremists. Officials may choose to appease extremists by not holding them accountable for violations and crimes, in exchange for guarantees or commitments to refrain from challenging government power.
While the United Nations and governments may be limited in how they engage with or criticise governments that promote extremist values, international NGOs and civil society institutions have greater leeway and also greater responsibilities in developing nuanced approaches and programs. Having varied local partners that support both peace and rights can help international NGOs to make informed decisions and craft appropriate responses.
The erosion of these rights is something women’s groups have been warning about for decades.
Extremist groups have also become savvy in adapting to and taking advantage of different structures, including by setting up civil society organisations. Civil society groups harbouring extreme religious ideologies have long advocated against women’s rights, including sexual and reproductive rights, at the international level and within the UN system. They often work with conservative or extremists governments and conservative religious institutions to undermine universal rights.
With the strengthening of extremist movements, the emergence of populist governments that actively advocate against rights at the national and international levels, and increasing restrictions placed by authoritarian states on independent civil society, there is a growing fear that universal rights may be undermined or weakened even further. The erosion of these rights is something women’s groups have been warning about for decades.
A diversity of legitimate local partners working to promote peace as well as rights is key to ensuring that international NGOs engage effectively in this area. They must know the context in which they work and depend on trusted partners with legitimacy within women’s movements to guide them in efforts to address and prevent extremisms. To do otherwise risks undermining progressive rights agendas and decades of experience and work of women’s movements. It risks moving us all to the right of centre in our collective efforts.