On May 28-30 Kosovo held its 4th International interfaith Conference highlighting the role, experience and contribution of Kosovo and the Balkan region to the global debate on promoting interfaith dialogue and countering violent extremism. The conference is the flagship event of Interfaith Kosovo initiative, bringing together civil society activists, faith leaders, diplomats and academics in discussing a broad range of challenges facing countries in ensuring reconciliation in post-conflict times and zones as well as countering violent extremism in today’s modern societies.
This year’s conference was organized by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the International Institute for Interfaith Dialogue and focused on best practices in using social media for countering message of hate and promote internal dialogue within Kosovo’s communities as well as external dialogue among all of Kosovo communities and peoples in the world who are going through difficult periods.
The following is a talk I gave at the Interfaith Conference on how to combat religious extremism in a human rights framework in the age of social media.
Dr. Tina Kempin Reuter’s Remarks:
I dashur zoti Minister Selimi,
Të dashur miq.
Ju faleminderit shumë për ftesen!
Vërtete ndjehem shumë e nderuar.
Minister Selimi, distinguished participants, thank you for the opportunity to share my thoughts today and for the warm welcome to Kosovo. It is an honor to be here. My short time in Kosovo and at this conference has been wonderful and I am humbled by the resilience of the people of Kosovo and their persistence in finding dialogue and peace. I’m speaking to you on the basis of my academic background – I am a professor of international politics and Director of the Reiff Center for Human Rights and Conflict Resolution at Christopher Newport University in the USA.
We have learned so much in the past days, but I do think there are some common themes. The one that resonated most with me is that basic human rights and the values they are built upon can be found in all societies. The remarks of religious leaders here in Kosovo on Thursday have clearly demonstrated this. Freedom of belief and freedom of expression are concepts that are deeply engrained in all communities, regardless if they are secular or religious.
This freedom is threatened, as many speakers at this conference have pointed out, by extremists. The topic of this conference is thus very timely.
Let me reflect on a seemingly simple question: Why is there extremism, and particularly religious extremism? The most common answer is that extremism flourishes in the absence of freedom. The argument is that what cannot be expressed openly becomes more extreme because it has to stay in the shadows. This is the idea that what is repressed rages on and will eventually explode into uncontrolled violence and uprising. The solution to this has been to suggest more openness and freedom, based on the assumption that if one doesn’t have to hide one’s believes they won’t become as extreme.
However, there is a competing interpretation. This second position holds that unrestrained freedom opens the floodgates to extremism. Religious freedom in this case is interpreted in the sense of freedom from all external examination. Any type of criticism is seen as offense to believers. In its strongest form, religious extremists will use religious freedom to create a world in which there is no religious freedom at all and only their religion is permitted.
What to do? It is clear that democracies respecting human rights will need to take the risk given the precious good of freedom. At the same time, there need to be limits on how far someone can go with regards to expressing his or her religion. It can’t be that those who preach murder in the name of God should go unpunished. This begs the question: Should there be a limit to religious freedom? And if so, where should it be? The “limits” to freedom have been interpreted very differently across the world. In the U.S., for example, freedom of expression and freedom of religion are far-reaching. So far, in fact, that businesses in Indiana can refuse to serve customers based on religious views and not get prosecuted for discrimination. In the UK and elsewhere in Europe, the limitations are stricter and the line between free speech and hate speech is more narrowly defined. In yet other parts of the world, the meaning and scope of freedom remain contested.
The discussion of where to set this limit gets religion intertwined with politics, law and governance, thus making the issue more complicated and having far reaching impact. It is clear that in a modern country, religions have to accept the prerogative of the constitutional state, including respect for pluralism, democracy, human rights, and the rule of law. This means we need to combine religion with reason. Reason should be seen as ally of religion, and also of freedom. Without reason, freedom deteriorates to mean nothing more than a series of arbitrary choices. Religious extremism happens when this link between religion and reason is broken. Extremists are resistant to outside criticism and as such, religious freedom looses its stake.
I think it is against this background that we need to view our struggle to counter extremism. We need to ask ourselves – who are we? What is our narrative? What do we stand for? And then – how can we implement what we stand for and counter those that threaten us? We are talking about ideas here, ideologies, beliefs, emotions. These cannot be fought militarily but through dialogue and exchange of ideas. Social media is just another way to establish this dialogue.
To counter extremist narratives, it is key to focus on both the message itself and the spread of the message. For both, social media is becoming more significant. Social media can be used as a PR tool: we need to tell the story about who we are first. Many speakers have pointed out the importance of positive messages. Studies have shown that negative messages can backfire, so it is important that we focus on who we are as opposed to who they are.
The focus is not just how ideologies and ideas are generated, but also how they are delivered. We are driven by narratives, and on social media, this means stories, images, short videos, memes, and stereotypes. It means raising awareness about the horrors and human rights violations by extremist groups. It means appealing to emotion, to understanding, to humanity. Obviously, this approach doesn’t accomplish much with regards to deterring extremists, but it does dismantle their propaganda and scaremongering, albeit slowly.
The lesson of the past couple of days of discussion is clear: If there needs to be a social media campaign countering extremism, it has to be done very carefully. We learned about the importance of finding the “right” speaker. If we are attempting to engage young populations and focus to dissuade them from joining extremist groups, we need to engage them at their level to keep the conversation credible. This means someone who is familiar with the cultural values and practices, a community-centered approach. Communities provide the solution to violent extremism because answers to radical ideologies can be tailored to local needs and dynamics. Extremists might also be influenced by peers in cultural in-groups. Anti-extremist voices in the in-group can be an incredibly powerful tool. For the government, this means giving up control and power, and I do think this is why we don’t see more of this. Nevertheless, this might be a powerful strategy.
Where to go from here? We need human capital, talent, leverage, and capabilities to make this happen. One part is platforms to share ideas and thoughts, just like this conference. We need institutions to create knowledge. We need the government to be involved. We need all voices to be heard, including the female voice and those of minorities, both of which are often neglected when focusing on religious dialogue. We also want the involvement of the private sector. This is where social media can make the biggest difference – to reach inclusive dialogue.
Who should do this work? Everyone, but in particular those in communities in which extremism originates. And here is where I think Kosovo is in a unique position. As this conference illustrates, Kosovo has successfully engaged in interfaith dialogue for a long time and has a lot of experience accommodating different communities. In addition, Kosovo has a large, well-educated young Muslim population combined with strong ties to the West. This, together with its geographical location and history, make it exceptionally well suited to provide these types of services and find innovative ways to spread messages of moderation and tolerance. Kosovo seems to be an ideal market, both politically and strategically, for counter-extremism efforts to focus on. One particular opportunity I see is small startup companies that specifically focus on this type of work. In many ways, small, flexible businesses are better suited to counter extremism because they can adapt quickly to changing circumstances and because they might be less vulnerable to threats. What the U.S. and others need to do is to provide the technical skills, vocational training, and opportunities for young leaders in Kosovo and elsewhere to take up this task.
So let me sum up: In order for a society to counter extremism, and in particular, religious extremism, we need that society to decide on the status of religion and its relation to the constitutional state. Each community needs to find the “line”. Human rights can provide a framework for discussion of what the community wants to achieve. All segments of societies have to be part of this dialogue, including the younger population, minorities, and people who disagree with the government. The goal is to establish dialogue; in other words it’s the process, not necessarily a “static” end goal of understanding that we need to focus on. And social media can play an important role establishing these connections among communities.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the Reiff Center For Human Rights and Conflict Resolution or Christopher Newport University.