World’s religious leaders conclude conference on “Religions Taking Action Together to Counter Violent Religious Extremism”

ABU DHABI: The world’s leading religious leaders on Saturday in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, concluded their two-day “Religions Working Together to Counter Violent Religious Extremism”, the first global multi-religious high-level conference on violent religious extremism, after discussing the challenges of violent religious extremism and identify collaborative actions to combat extremism.

This conference was hosted between 12-13 December 2014 in Abu Dhabi by the Forum for Promoting Peace in Muslim Societies and convened in cooperation with Religions for Peace.

The Forum for Promoting Peace in Muslim Societies gathers intellectuals and leading thinkers from around the world to clarify that Islam is a religion of peace and reconcile burning disputes. Religions for Peace is the world’s largest and most representative multi-religious coalition with a presence in over 90 countries.

“Religions Working Together to Counter Violent Religious Extremism” is the first global multi-religious high-level conference on violent religious extremism. This conference featured five panels exploring the challenge of violent religious extremism from the lens of various religious traditions, inter-governmental and humanitarian perspectives and the multi-religious approach. The conference aimed to understand the drivers of violent religious extremism and identify religious and multi-religious capacities for combatting this threat to all of humanity.

Participants emphatically agreed that now is the time for action against violent religious extremism. High-level religious leaders and intergovernmental officials such as; Shaikh Abdullah bin Bayyah, President of the Forum for Peace in Muslim Societies and Co-Moderator of Religions for Peace; Cardinal John Onaiyekan, Archbishop of Abuja, Nigeria and Co-Moderator of Religions for Peace; Nassir Abdulaziz Al Nasser, High Representative, United Nations Alliance of Civilizations; and Dr. William F. Vendley, Secretary-General, Religions for Peace noted that one of the keys to defeating extremism is religious leaders capacities to educate and mobilize their congregations against extremism.

Religious leaders of all faiths concurred that it is their sacred duty in this fight against violent religious extremism to use their knowledge and influence to provide their followers with the correct explanations of their religious texts. Shaikh bin Bayyah and Cardinal Onaiyekan both empirically stated that their respective texts must be re-interpreted for their followers so that they are applicable to the conditions of modern day. Shaikh bin Bayyah states that extremism is fueled by “the misconceptions and misunderstandings of Sharia” and that it is up to the scholars to help the religious followers understand the text. According to Cardinal Onaiyekan “the bible has been in existence for thousands of year but every generation has interpreted the bible to reflect the needs of their generation; we are not scandalized when the interpretations of 6th century are different from today. We need to interpret for today, for our own people”.

The conference emphasized that religious leaders must take an active role in developing the counter narrative by providing their followers with the authentic narrative. In the words of Dr. William Vendley, “The primary narrative of each religion is about peace and human dignity, let us collect and share the texts from all religious traditions that uphold human dignity.” The conference closely examined the drivers of violent religious extremism, including psychological and socio-economic drivers as well as the misuse of religious traditions and texts. Reverend Father Ayuso Guixot, Secretary of the Pontifical Council for Inter-Religious Dialogue stated that “we have to reach young people helping them live in a world of peace and justice. Young people need hope and jobs. Stagnant economies and poverty fuel extremism.” The underlying theme, echoed by all participants was that at the core of all religions is peace and respect for human dignity. Ayatollah Damad, Head of Islamic Studies at the Academy of Sciences of the Islamic Republic of Iran, explained that when there is a question of Quranic interpretation that we must view the text from its core principle, which is peace. Sheikh Abdullah Bin Bayyah made the same point when he noted that when conflicts of interpretations of texts arise, the default position is the position that advances peace.

This conference yielded a multi-religious statement, which calls upon governments, the United Nations and religious communities to work together, leveraging their own unique strengths and abilities to counter violent extremism through the promotion of human dignity and rejection of violent extremist narratives. Religions for Peace presented its three-year global action plan that engages its wide network to utilize education, advocacy and strategic humanitarian assistance in the fight against violent extremism. Religious leaders and UN officials pledged future collaboration under Security Council Resolution 2178 in joint efforts against violent religious extremism.

Nassir Abudulzaiz, the United Nations High Representative for the Alliance of Civilizations (UNAOC) confirmed this commitment of the UN to work with religious communities by reminding the group of UNAOC’s “work with religious leaders in many different parts of the world, often through our longstanding relationship with Religions for Peace to amplify their voices and more effectively disseminate messages of pluralism to their constituencies”. He also declared that, “UNAOC stands ready to support Member States in addressing rising tensions that appear through the faces of racialization, violence and extremism”.

The meeting also included a message of hope by all, a belief that we must have hope in order to combat violent extremism, which is born of despair. Bishop Angealos, Bishop of the Coptic Orthodox Church, stated, “We can give an account of the hope within us. We give hope- not rhetoric, a real hope that says yes there are problems and yes we can be part of the solutions. We can live together, we must protect each other. This is what God desires.” :: Following is the text of the final statement of the “Religions Working Together to Counter Violent Religious Extremism” conference in Abu Dhabi: “13 December 2014. The Forum for Peace in Muslim Societies, Abu Dhabi (Convener and Co-Partner).

Religions for Peace: Rejecting Violent Religious Extremism and Advancing Shared Well-being Religion is a sublime ethical and spiritual force that aims to heal human society, provide security and peace among people and ensure human dignity and the rights that flow from it. However, some extremists abuse their religion, distorting its image and using it to achieve non-religious objectives. They project violent images that contradict and violate the essence of their religion.

Categorical Rejection of Violent Religious Extremism and its Purported Justifications Religion is increasingly being abused in support of violent extremism that is violence justified by an extremist religious ideology that does not acknowledge and honor human dignity and the rights that flow from it. There are other forms of violent extremism, for example, political and ethnic violent ideologies that purport to justify the killing of the innocent. While we deplore and condemn all forms of violent extremism, we, as religious leaders, accept a special responsibility to reject, condemn and take action against violent religious extremism. We are committed to mobilizing the great resources of our respective religious traditions to take action together to help overcome it.

Today, violent religious extremism causes the murder of innocents, immense suffering, the erosion of trust between different groups and fuels social hostility. In addition, violent religious extremist ideologies perversely twist and distort the religious heritages they purport to represent. Violent religious extremism is not limited to one group, region, culture, religion or historical period. Today, it is a plague to the entire world.

Violent religious extremism frequently employs terrorism a virulent form of violent extremism designed to sow fear to promote its ends that can include the desire to dominate others, control resources and obtain political power. Violent religious extremists cloak themselves with false religious doctrines to justify their acts and use grossly erroneous moral justifications to inflict terror against “unbelievers”.

We are profoundly concerned that violent religious extremism is malignant and metastasizing. Every religiously related hostility every attack, every hate crime, every insult, every humiliation is amplified in the media and sends out a polarizing wave that is fueling a rise in social hostility, that in turn can add to the seductions of violent religious extremism. New forms of social media are being widely and skillfully used to recruit youth to violent religious extremism.

We respectful of our religious differences stand morally united in rejecting every form of violent religious extremism. These are false religious ideologies of hatred, not Peace. They cloud and distort the lens by which individuals and groups can assess what is right or wrong. And this occurs on all levels of human living, including the level of feelings, which are simultaneously dulled, coarsened and inflamed. These twisted violent religious ideologies foster the acceptance of barbarism and butchery, justifying them, saying they are “right.” At bottom, they share in common the fatal flaw of failing to acknowledge and honor universal human dignity and the rights that flow from it. This misuse of religion is grievously mistaken; it is a source of anguish to all sincere believers; and it should in no way be confused with the variety of religious attempts to carefully delineate and strictly limit the rights for the use of force in self-defense.

Tackling the Drivers of Violent Religious Extremism: Whilst we categorically reject all justifications for violent religious extremism, we recognize that it is often “driven” or “promoted” by a variety of factors. Understanding these factors can guide our efforts to overcome violent religious extremism. These drivers can be grouped as the following: Religious Ideological Drivers which are misinterpretations of religion that attempt to justify violent extremism by building upon the fact that all religions have texts that have the potential to be misused in support of violence. These religious ideologies present themselves as narratives purporting to represent the truth of a given religion. These false narratives must be unmasked, debunked and replaced by authentic “counter-narratives” that bring to the fore each religion’s respect for human dignity and rejection of violent extremism as well as other forms of cultural violence.

Socio-economic Drivers which include widespread abuses of fundamental human rights, poverty, lack of opportunity for upward mobility and the failure of governments to provide basic services, including education. The link between these deplorable conditions and violent extremism needs to be frankly acknowledged and responded to by promoting good governance, the rule of law, tolerance and addressing global poverty, thereby removing many of the factors that can “push” people towards violent religious extremism.

Psychological/Spiritual Drivers which include the psychological and spiritual need to belong and the desire to be part of something bigger than one’s self. These may also include the desire to respond to affronts to one’s personal or collective senses of dignity. The psychological allure of violent religious extremism must be countered with true opportunities to build a meaningful life, including genuine ways of addressing long-standing injustices and contributing to the common good.

We believe that each of these so called “drivers” of violent religious extremism must be further analyzed and responded to with the capacities and resources of the religious communities. In addition, we note again that the impact of these drivers are being powerfully amplified in the new forms of media in skillful and well-funded campaigns designed to recruit people into forms of violent religious extremism. Thus, in addition to responding to the three sets of drivers, there is the great need to engage the media, especially social media to counter violent religious extremism.

The Need for a Multi-religious Approach Our religious communities can and must respond to all of the “drivers” of violent religious extremism. A multi-religious response is a concrete and effective religious demonstration against violent religious extremism. It shows clearly that diverse religious communities share common concerns and are ready to engage together ,while respecting religious differences.

Multi-religious approaches build solidarity around areas of shared concern and make clear that the religious “other” can be recognized as a moral ally, as opposed to an enemy. It also makes clear that an attack on any religion is at root an attack on all.

The strength and power of our multi-religious responses are rooted in each believer’s fidelity to his or her respective religion and the shared commitment to collaborate in tackling violent religious extremism. We agree that Peace, which is far more than the absence of conflict, is “positive,” and that it calls each religious community to stand in solidarity with the dignity, vulnerability and well-being of the “other,” with the full force of its respective spiritual and moral teachings. Such teachings are specific to each religious tradition. They include: the frank recognition of mutually inflicted injuries, striving for justice, accepting self-sacrifice for the well-being of others, bearing innocent suffering, returning good for evil, seeking and extending forgiveness and reconciliation and expressing unrestricted compassion and love in action.

The Need for a Multi-stakeholder Approach To effectively respond to the “drivers” of violent religious extremism, we need a multi-stakeholder approach, with governments, civil society, and religious communities each playing their decisive and complementary roles. Each must use their strengths to blunt the drivers of violent religious extremism and each must contribute in its own way to a positive state of Peace that advances justice, encourages reconciliation for past injuries, upholds the dignity of all people and promotes shared human flourishing. Additional mechanisms to enhance collaboration at all levels must be created.

Calls on Governments and the United Nations The multi-stakeholder approach to counter violent religious extremism must be balanced, focusing on both blunting the drivers of violent religious extremism and the threat of the extremist groups. It should recognize that an over-securitized approach can produce paradoxical results. In this we applaud the United Nations Security Council Resolutions that remind us that all efforts against violent extremism must respect human rights and fundamental freedoms and must be in compliance with other obligations under international law.

We also note that the most successful approaches will engage all elements of society and be inclusive of women. Women’s involvement is crucial. For example, women’s unique capabilities to reach into a variety of sectors and to identify and respond to the radicalization of youth must be fostered and supported.

Successful will also engage youth. Youth must be enabled to have their voices heard in political and national arenas so that they can help shape the society in which they live. This positive engagement will help counter the psychological lure of violent religious extremism.

With these considerations in mind, we call upon: Governments to: 1. Cease and desist all funding and support to religious extremist groups. Supporting these groups allows them to grow and commit future terrorist acts.

2. Weaken the drivers of violent religious extremism by promoting tolerance, mutual respect and working to remove all forms of oppression and structural violence.

3. Work to reduce poverty and develop stable institutions that can deliver essential services to decrease the socio-economic drivers of violent extremism.

4. Foster policies of inclusiveness and develop strong civil societies to weaken the grip of psychological drivers that push people towards extremist groups.

5. Recognize and support the work of religious and multi-religious groups, including their women and youth groups, and civil society as major actors in the effort to counter violent extremism.

United Nations and its Member States to: 1. Abide (Member States) by all Security Council resolutions to combat violent extremism.

2. Deliver (Member States) on all Millennium Development and post 2015 Sustainable Development Goals to help eliminate the socio-economic drivers that push vulnerable populations toward violent extremism.

3. Facilitate (The United Nations, including notably the UN Alliance of Civilizations) governments and other stakeholders to form alliances to combine their strengths to counter violent extremism.

Calls on Religious Communities and Religions for Peace Based on shared commitments to Peace, we call on: Religious Communities to: 1. Take the lead in unmasking, debunking and rejecting the misuse of religion as a (false) justification for violent religious extremism by presenting the authentic teachings of their respective religions that reject violent extremism and affirm universal human dignity, particularly through religious education that takes place in local sites of worship.

2. Advance human dignity through concrete programs designed to overcome the abuses of human rights, poverty, the lack of basic services and other grievous threats to human dignity, such programs to include special attention to empowering youth and women.

3. Engage in dialogue to resolve conflict and increase inter-communal understanding to promote coexistence and respect for human dignity.

4. Equip religious youth groups for peer training and programs designed to provide religiously sensitive counseling that reject violent religious extremism and affirm human dignity.

5. Stand in solidarity with all religious believers and men and women of goodwill to condemn violent religious extremism.

Religions for Peace to: 1. Compile the relevant teachings of the world’s diverse religious traditions that reject violent religious extremism and promote the common good; to build educational and training programs based upon them and to make them widely available.

2. Utilize the above materials to provide basic training in combating violent religious extremism across the entire Religions for Peace (RfP) movement the RfP World Council, the RfP six Regional Councils, the RfP 90 National Councils and groups, the RfP Women of Faith Networks and the RfP Interfaith Youth Networks.

3. Respond with intensive programs on combating violent religious extremism in areas of crisis or growing vulnerability, including programs that couple the provision of strategic humanitarian assistance with specific trainings and other programs designed to combat violent religious extremism.

4. Engage in multi-religious partnerships with religious communities and their associated organizations. In this regard we note with gratitude The Forum for Peace in Muslim Societies, Abu Dhabi.

5. Build multi-stakeholder partnerships to support multi-religious programs, including those designed to empower the youth and women to work together to address the drivers of violent religious extremism.

6. Harness the authoritative voices of the world’s religious communities in large scale social media campaigns designed to unmask and delegitimize the misuse of religious meanings as the false justifications for violent religious extremism such media campaigns to combine the strengths of religious elders, women and youth.

7. Advance programs that include religiously qualified personalities for the de-radicalization and rehabilitation of youth who have succumbed to violent religious extremism such programs to be operated in accord with relevant legal codes.

Message of Hope: We live in a critical moment of history, the global human family is emerging and this gives reason for hope. Violent religious extremism must be resisted and does not extinguish our hope.

Core religious teachings on Peace and the universality of human dignity, respect for religious differences and a multi-religious commitment to take action together are powerful antidotes to violent religious extremism. Through the cooperation of religious communities, governments, intergovernmental bodies and other civil society actors, it will be possible to not only counter violent religious extremism, but also to build the common good that honors human dignity and advances the flourishing of the global family.

At the end of this blessed gathering of representatives of all religions that are in the service of peace and in the promotion of the culture and virtues of peace, the participants express their gratitude to the United Arab Emirates and to its President Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan and his Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, and His Highness Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan the Foreign Minister of the UAE for hosting this important meeting and providing all the necessary encouragement and support for its success.