How can the US counter religious extremism?

By Matt Hadro

Despite secularization in some countries, “the world is becoming more religious” and the United States needs to factor this into its foreign policy, one religious freedom expert said Thursday.

“The reality, whether someone likes it or doesn’t like it, is that the world is becoming more religious, not less religious,” Dr. Robert George, former chair of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, told EWTN News in a June 16 interview on Thursday.

This refutes “secularization theory,” the sociological belief that “as modernization moves forward, religion will retreat, as people learn more about science they become less interested in religion,” George explained.

George testified Thursday on the global state of religious freedom before the House Subcommittee on Global Human Rights. He was joined by Rabbi David Saperstein, U.S. Ambassador at-Large for International Religious Freedom, and Dr. Zuhdi Jasser, president of the American Islamic Forum for Democracy and former vice chair of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom.

“Religious liberty is called America’s first freedom,” stated Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.), chair of the subcommittee, saying it is “not only an American value. It’s a universal principle.”

Yet it has “significantly deteriorated” around the world, he said, and “is constantly and brutally under siege.”

Advances have been made in some countries in favor of greater religious freedom, Saperstein noted, but overall “the challenges to religious freedom are daunting.”

The rabbi noted that he has already traveled to 20 countries in his 18 months as ambassador, and has met with many people, including those from the countries who are the worst violators of religious freedom.

“What has stood out is the incredible, irrepressible spirit of all the individuals who risk imprisonment, discrimination and even death for simply seeking to live out their lives in accordance with their conscience,” he continued.

Yet if the U.S. is to promote religious practice and freedom of religion abroad, how can it also act to curb religious extremism? Rather than promoting secularism as an antidote to religious extremism, the U.S. should empower religious voices who promote peace and reject violence, George said.

“Within any of the great religions, there are resources for combatting violent extremism and proposing harmony and cooperation, and even mutual understanding among people of different faiths,” he noted.

“We need to encourage the use of those resources by leaders and ordinary people within those religions.”

For example, within the U.S., Americans should look to support Muslims who are condemning religious violence and are putting “their very own lives at risk” by opposing terror groups such as Islamic State.

“In the United States, we should not simply be condemning Islam. We should be assisting those leaders and movements within Islam who are drawing on the resources that are present in the tradition, in the Muslim tradition, to promote peace and harmony and to reject violence,” he said.

Not to do so is to “play into the hands of ISIS and our other enemies, who seek to use violence to accomplish religious domination” and who claim the rightful interpretation of Islam, he added.

And historically, the “most murderous ideologies” have been “self-consciously secular,” he continued, noting the likes of fascism, Nazism, and communism.

In promoting religious freedom, the U.S. must emphasize that this freedom is not just limited to a “right to worship” and to pray in private or at a place of worship, George noted in his testimony.

“It is the right to follow one’s own conscience on matters of faith and belief,” while honoring the rights of others.

And we must work for religious freedom; it will not simply come about with inaction, George maintained in his testimony.

It’s a “widespread but false belief” that “history will inevitably move in the direction of moral progress,” he said, adding that “this view ignores the radical contingency of human affairs, and the reality of human freedom.”

“If liberty and justice are to prevail, it will require the free choices, determination, dedication, and courage of men and women, flesh and blood, human beings, citizens and statesmen.”

“Victory is not guaranteed. History does not give us a promise of everything coming out alright in the end, not in the world of human affairs,” he said.

Yet victory is possible, he added.

“So let us here — to use Lincoln’s phrase – ‘highly resolve’ to turn the possibility of progress for religious liberty into reality.”

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