By Sussan Tahmasebi

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.

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.

This article was originally published on 5050 Open Democracy

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