n the past year, violence committed in the name of religion has caused enormous death, destruction, and human suffering. The rise in Iraq and Syria of the terrorist group ISIS illustrates one of the major challenges to religious freedom, peace, and security in the 21st century: the actions of non-state actors, especially, but not only, in failed or failing states.
Extremist groups acting in the name of religion are behind some of the worst violations of religious freedom.
As the US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), recognised in its recent 2015 annual report, non-state actors, particularly extremist and terrorist organisations that espouse distorted religious beliefs or ethno-religious nationalism, perpetrate some of the worst violations of religious freedom being committed today. Therefore, the state-to-state diplomacy paradigm that the international community relied on to influence authoritarian leaders throughout the 20th century will not work with non-state ideologues that seek to achieve religiously or ethnically homogenous societies. Given how widespread and diverse these groups have become, the international community must not only coordinate efforts to protect civilians from religious freedom aggressors, but also develop policies to combat the further rise and spread of these violent and intolerant non-state actors.
One of USCIRF's new recommendations this year is the referral of ISIS to the International Criminal Court for prosecution for its war crimes, crimes against humanity, and acts of genocide against religious and ethnic minorities in Iraq and Syria. But while this is important, it is not sufficient. The international community also must take steps to address the conditions that are feeding the growth of groups like ISIS.
For example, in the case of Syria and Iraq, President Bashar al-Assad, Saddam Hussein, and former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki acted in authoritarian and sectarian ways, pitting religious and ethnic groups against one another, and providing economic, political and social favors to those that swore allegiance while oppressing and marginalising those that did not. Additionally, these governments proved unwilling to protect communities from religiously motivated attacks. These factors helped create the conditions in which ISIS could rise, spread and ultimately become a de-facto state across the northern areas of the two countries. To combat ISIS's further expansion, and help preserve Iraq's and Syria's longstanding religious and ethnic diversity, the international community must pressure the Iraqi government and the Syrian National Coalition to be inclusive of all religious and ethnic communities in governmental structures at all levels. As long as religious and ethnic communities are disenfranchised from the government and society as a whole, extremist and terrorist groups, like ISIS, will find support.
In addition, the international community is failing to adequately aid Syrian and Iraqi refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs). The UN High Commissioner for Refugees recently told the UN Security Council "14 million people are now displaced due to the interlinked crises in Syria and Iraq." In the case of Syria there are nearly four million refugees registered with UNHCR, and hundreds of thousands more believed to be unregistered; nearly seven million internally displaced, and tens of thousands of babies born stateless; as well as 9.3 million people in need of basic assistance, such as food, water, and shelter. Three-quarters of all registered Syrian refugees are women and children, with children being the majority of that percentage.
These numbers do not tell the whole story, however. Prior to the current conflict, Syria was 75 per cent Sunni Muslim – the majority of whom are now among these refugees, IDPs, and stateless children. Left languishing in refugee camps or abandoned buildings, without adequate food, shelter, health care education, or employment opportunities, many will become easy pickings for indoctrination by groups like ISIS. This risks creating the next generation of extremists and terrorists. As a result, it is not just a moral or humanitarian imperative, but also a security imperative, for the international community to financially assist and help find durable solutions for Iraqi and Syrian refugees and displaced persons. This includes quickly resettling the most vulnerable, as well as assisting the neighbouring countries that are hosting large numbers of refugees who may never be able or willing to return to their homes.
Police should be trained on religious sensitivities.
There are also small but tangible steps and policies that countries can and should pursue that will help combat the influence and power of violent and intolerant non-state actors. For example, local police and judiciaries should be trained on religious sensitivities and ways to investigate alleged religiously-motivated attacks; religious leaders and laity should reach out to other communities to increase religious and communal harmony; local and national leaders should be admonished for religiously derogatory or divisive language and sectarian actions; and schools should teach children tolerance and respect for religious diversity. USCIRF's Annual Report includes additional practical recommendations that can work in many countries to improve religious freedom and combat the abhorrent ideologies of groups like ISIS.
Non-state actors and the religious freedom violations they perpetrate are a virus that unfortunately appears to be spreading. A multi-faceted effort will be required to combat ISIS and its ilk around the world. However, given that these extremist groups use religion as their calling card, the international community -- governments, religious leaders and laity, and non-governmental organisations – must start by universally recognizing religious freedom for everyone, everywhere, and must be willing and able to protect and promote this fundamental right.
Elizabeth Cassidy is a deputy director for policy and research and Sahar Chaudhry is a senior policy analyst at the US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF). This piece is based largely on USCIRF's 2015 Annual Report; any other opinions are the authors' own.