With recent developments in the Middle East the growing temptation for increased military intervention is palpable. Despite increased coalition airstrikes against them, the group known as ISIL continues to maintain a threatening presence in Syria and Iraq, emphasizing to some the potential need for increased military commitment on the part of the United States or other western countries.
Over a decade later, the global dialogue regarding this issue of violent religious extremism—especially in the Middle East—remains significantly shackled to the views immediately following events of September 11th. Increased military commitment on behalf of the United States, without proper regard for Middle Eastern socio-cultural and socio-political consequences, would serve only to repeat past folly.
Referencing the legislation that defined post-9/11 foreign policy, the Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF) seems to not only have failed to eliminate the threat of violent religious extremism, but failed to even prevent its growth. While conceived initially to combat al Qaeda and its affiliates, the AUMF is now used to address newer groups (such as ISIL or Boko Haram) which span territories within and without the Middle East.
That the President is authorized to use all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations, or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001, or harbored such organizations or persons in order to prevent any future acts of international terrorism against the United States by such nations, organizations or persons.
Fueled by the notion of clashing civilizations, the AUMF and resulting foreign policy objectives have effectively established a context of religious war. This struggle between Islam and the West has then been used by religious extremist groups to legitimize and recruit people to their “global crusade.”
Within the past decade, however, the understanding of violent religious extremism has evolved and grown to include the understanding of extremism’s social and cultural roots. The context of the religious war has slowly been chipped away, and jihadists have been and must continue to be reduced to individual actors, simply “people who have perverted Islam.”
What is key to this issue of religious extremism is understanding that it is at its core ideological. Military action and the perpetuation of violence can only minimally stem the geographical influence of religious extremism. It cannot, however, defeat it altogether.
So while the temptation for increased military intervention grows, focus should be concentrated on efforts to delegitimize extremist narratives. This is the nature of today’s conflict.
Steps have been taken to change the approach in combating religious extremism. From the White House’s summit on anti-extremism in February, to global ventures seeking to fund de-legitimizing efforts in the Middle East, as well as the rehabilitation of western jihadists, the attitude towards religious terrorism and extremism is slowly becoming increasingly holistic and socially conscious.
Unfortunately, this path to social reform in order to combat religious extremism is neither easy nor instantaneous. It requires, among many other things, the toleration of individuals and the maintenance of individual liberties.