As the United States expands its efforts to counter the threat presented by violent extremism, it continues to emphasize the need to confront the ideology that motivates and enables it. In the case of violent Islamist extremism, this includes the few militant Muslims, who carry out or support terrorist violence, and the far greater number who have developed a dogmatic view of Islam, characterized by intolerance and hostility towards non-Muslims or towards their co-religionists who hold different views.
Such intolerant attitudes contribute to violence by propagating an ideology that condones and affirms violence carried out in the name of defending religion.
Blasphemy laws, which impose religious orthodoxy and punish religious minorities, are both an indicator of problematic close-minded religious views that fuel the ideology of violent extremism, and a driver of the extreme idea that religious belief should be policed and imposed by force.
Governments that enforce blasphemy laws signal support for a central premise of violent extremist ideology: hostility and intolerance towards those who believe differently. Such governments make themselves vulnerable to pressure from extreme political groups, which use blasphemy laws to pressure government officials and members of the judiciary to accede to their extreme positions by propagating the narrative that to be against blasphemy laws is to be against Islam.
These narratives drive extremism, undermine the rule of law, and lead directly to violence. In Pakistan, government officials who called for reform or repeal of the blasphemy laws have been assassinated. Blasphemy trials are routinely accompanied by violent mobs who target defendants and their legal representatives.
It is therefore a challenge for the United States that some of its main allies in the global struggle against violent extremism--countries like Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Pakistan--are world leaders in imposing restrictive blasphemy laws that violate freedom of religion and freedom of expression and facilitate the persecution of religious minorities. Far from being allies in the ideological struggle against violent extremism, governments that impose blasphemy laws are part of the problem.
Governments like this have struck a Faustian bargain with Islamic extremism. In return for support from religious authorities, like the Council of Senior Scholars in Saudi Arabia or Al Azhar in Egypt, governments give such institutions license to spread extreme, intolerant views throughout society. The governments benefit politically from these arrangements, gaining religious legitimacy to head off challenges from Islamic political groups, while also acquiring useful allies to push back against advocates of political reform and human rights--which threaten authoritarian governments.
The problem is that governments do not fully control these extremist movements, even less the dynamics set in motion by their violent ideologies that periodically produce domestic terrorism and even armed rebellion. Moreover, the influence of preachers and religious institutions from these large, influential states where extremist ideology is condoned and even fostered by state authorities spreads throughout the rest of world as the Internet and satellite broadcasting networks carry their messages of extremism and intolerance to countless millions of people every day.
When attempting to address the ideas that fuel violent extremism, the U.S. government may feel constrained in its ability to raise sensitive issues like blasphemy laws with these partners, whose cooperation it deems vital to counterterrorism efforts. Religious extremists point to any opposition to blasphemy laws from western governments as evidence of western hostility to Islam, and such claims have resonance.
Nonetheless, if the United States is to make progress in its efforts to counter and prevent violent extremism, it cannot afford to ignore the ideological struggle. Blasphemy laws engender extremism, strengthen violent extremist groups, and undermine vital state institutions, like the judiciary.
Human rights, the rule of law, and robust protections for basic freedoms, like freedom of expression and freedom of belief, are powerful antidotes to the intolerant ideologies that fuel violent extremism. But these values are also seen as a threat and therefore resisted by authoritarian leaders. It is no accident that in many countries where violent extremism has developed, a mutually re-enforcing cycle of conflict between state repression and violent extremism has also developed to the detriment of societies as a whole.
Given the destabilizing impact of violent extremism within many countries and the spillover effects that have reached Europe and the United States, the United States should not back away from insisting that to be effective partners in the ideological struggle against violent extremism, U.S. allies should stand up for human rights and basic freedoms, especially freedom of expression and belief, and therefore end the use of destructive blasphemy laws.